By MEG KINNARD
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The state's top prosecutor has the authority to try criminal domestic violence cases in municipal and magistrate courts throughout South Carolina, according to an opinion issued Wednesday by the state's highest court.
The high court had been mulling a request from Attorney General Alan Wilson, who asked justices in August to affirm his authority to try such cases.
The issue arose after local-level judges issued conflicting decisions in two separate criminal domestic violence cases. In one instance, a Lexington County judge sided with Wilson.
A West Columbia municipal judge sided with the second defendant, however, writing in a July 24 order that, while the constitution gives the attorney general authority in all "courts of record," that title doesn't technically apply to courts at the municipal and magistrate levels.
"The State Constitution does not provide that the Attorney General may prosecute in all courts of the unified judicial system," Municipal Judge Kenneth W. Ebener wrote in his order, noting that all parties involved had stipulated that the municipal and magistrate courts were not "courts of record."
"This Court fines the plain, ordinary, and unambiguous meaning of the words in the Constitution limits the Attorney General's authority," Ebener wrote, noting that Wilson needs permission from the local court or a solicitor before prosecuting such cases.
In Wednesday's unanimous opinion, Justice Costa Pleicones wrote that the attorney general is the state's "chief prosecuting officer" and may try cases in the state's various courts, including at the summary level. As for the constitutional language, the court wrote that it "does not expressly nor implicitly restrict the Attorney General from prosecuting cases in summary courts, and that as the 'chief prosecuting officer' of the State of South Carolina, the Attorney General may prosecute cases in summary courts."
Wilson's office didn't immediately comment on the ruling.