Toal: Locally born courts break law

Chief Justice Toal: 'The creation of these courts is repugnant.'

COLUMBIA — A memo from South Carolina's top judge says any courts created to consider violations of local ordinances like smoking bans are illegal under the state's constitution, an edict that has some municipal officials wondering how they should deal with violators.

"The courts are purportedly established for the purpose of hearing smoking infractions, as well as various other local ordinance violations," Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in the one-paragraph memo sent Monday to municipal administrators and judges throughout the state. "The creation of these courts is repugnant to the long-standing concept of the state uniform judicial system."

Instead, Toal wrote, infractions of local ordinances, such as bans on smoking in public places, should be heard by magistrate and municipal courts — bodies she said are constitutional.

Smoking bans have sprung up across the state since last year, when Toal's court ruled that cities and towns have the power to ban indoor smoking in public places. Four South Carolina counties and 23 municipalities have passed smoking bans, and others are being debated, according to the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative, an anti-smoking group.

Justices perplexed some local officials in a unanimous ruling about smoking enforcement on Sullivan's Island, which in May 2006 became the first South Carolina town to pass a smoking ban. The court ruled the town can ban the practice inside public places but can't make violating the smoking ban a crime and can't jail people who disobey.

Andy Benke, town administrator in Sullivan's Island, says attorneys there are reviewing the memo, and the state's municipal association says its members already are asking questions.

Charleston officials have reviewed Toal's memo and said they don't think it applies to the city's Livability Court, which was set up to handle quality-of-life ordinances dealing with such issues as littering and violations of the smoking ban.

Jane Borden, a lawyer for the city, said Livability Court is part of the municipal court system and is presided over by a municipal court judge.