Following a model that is present in every state, the South Carolina judicial system is now structured hierarchically. The two highest courts are both appellate bodies, meaning that they almost exclusively adjudicate cases that have been referred to them from lower courts.
The purpose of any state judicial system is to resolve civil disputes among residents and to determine the guilt or innocence of persons accused of crimes and infractions. Article V of the state constitution provides for a uniform system of justice throughout the state.
Although the contemporary courts in South Carolina are more or less “uniform,” this is a recent occurrence. Judicial systems developed in a haphazard fashion over the centuries. As new forms of disputes arose–such as traffic violations, domestic disturbances, and massive amounts of civil litigation–new courts were created to meet specialized needs. Predictably, this process led to a state judicial system that was fragmented and lacked consistency. At least six types of trial courts existed by the early 1970s, yet no single judicial district contained all of the types represented. Moreover, the lines of appeal varied. Cases appealed from municipal courts could, in some counties, be taken to the county courts, while in other counties these cases were reviewed by circuit courts. Meanwhile, county courts in one county might have jurisdiction over civil suits of $5,000 or less, while these courts in other counties could hear cases exceeding $11,000 in value. This chaotic situation was finally resolved during a reform movement that occurred between 1975 and 1990. Grounded in recommendations from the American Bar Association, the state constitution was revised to eliminate most of the specialized courts and to provide greater consistency in procedure and jurisdiction.
Following a model that is present in every state, the South Carolina judicial system is now structured hierarchically. The two highest courts are both appellate bodies, meaning that they almost exclusively adjudicate cases that have been referred to them from lower courts. Appellate courts do not establish facts, as do trial courts. Instead, they apply the facts that have been established at lower levels to the relevant laws or policies, and/or they ascertain whether appropriate procedures were followed in the courts below.
The highest court in the state is the South Carolina Supreme Court, which consists of one chief justice and four associate justices. These are selected by the General Assembly to ten-year terms. As the final level of appeal within South Carolina, the state supreme court exercises two types of jurisdiction, mandatory and discretionary. Cases that the court must hear (mandatory) arrive by writ of appeal from lower trial courts and include such topics as the death penalty, public utility rates, public bond disputes, and election law violations. A far larger amount of the court’s time is devoted to discretionary appeals–cases that arrive by writ of certiorari and which may or may not be decided, depending on the preferences of the justices. In an average year the court will review about three thousand cases and issue about 250 full opinions. Additionally the state supreme court exercises broad administrative powers over the other courts in the state. With the assistance of the Office of the South Carolina Court Administrator, the court prepares the judicial system budget, allocates resources, and assigns lower court judges on the basis of workloads. The S.C. Supreme Court is also responsible for admitting persons to practice law in the state and for disciplining lawyers and judges who commit ethical misconduct.
The other appellate court is the South Carolina Court of Appeals. This entity was established in 1983 to take some of the workload off the state supreme court. It consists of a chief judge and eight associate judges who are elected to staggered six-year terms by the General Assembly. The court usually decides cases in panels of three judges each, but it may meet collectively (en banc) to adjudicate extremely important matters. Since its creation, the S.C. Court of Appeals has become the appellate court workhorse in the state. It reviews about 2,500 cases each year, and issues full opinions in about one-third of those disputes. Virtually any matter may be appealed to the court from the trial courts, including many procedural questions concerning the selection of jurors, the impartiality of judges, and the competence of legal counsel provided to indigent defendants.
The remaining courts in the state are all trial courts. The most important are the circuit courts, which are the trial courts of general jurisdiction. They hear all civil cases exceeding $7,500 in value, and criminal cases in which the possible penalties are greater than$1,000 or thirty days in jail. Consequently, anyone accused of a serious crime, or suing another person for a significant amount of damages, will appear before a circuit court judge. Most proceedings in circuit courts are decided by juries. Circuit courts are divided into two divisions, General Sessions for criminal cases, and the Court of Common Pleas for civil litigation. South Carolina is divided into sixteen judicial circuits consisting of between two and four counties. Circuit court judges are elected by the General Assembly to six-year terms. Each circuit has one or more resident judges, and the remaining judges are subject to rotation among the other circuits depending on workload demands.
Two types of specialized courts complement the work of the circuit judges. The family court system consists of fifty-two judges who are elected by the General Assembly to six-year terms. There is one family court per judicial circuit. These are the sole forum for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, separation, child custody, visitation, termination of parental rights, alimony, and name changes. They also have jurisdiction over juveniles who are charged with crimes, except for most traffic and hunting offenses. Probate courts, in contrast, are organized differently. Instead of being arranged by circuit and elected by the General Assembly, probate judges are popularly elected within each county to four-year terms. Thus, there are forty-six probate judges (equal to the number of counties), as well as a number of associate probate judges who are appointed in populous counties to help with the case burden. These courts resolve all cases involving wills, estates, and trusts. Probate judges also supervise the estates of incapacitated individuals and rule on involuntary commitments of citizens to various forms of supervision (alcohol dependency, mental incapacity).
The final two judicial bodies in South Carolina are called limited jurisdiction courts due to the relatively insignificant nature of the cases they resolve. Magistrate courts exercise jurisdiction over criminal offenses involving penalties or fines not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment of thirty days or less. Their civil jurisdiction extends to cases involving up to $7,500. As the most numerous courts in the state, there are more than three hundred magistrates. Magistrates are appointed by the governor on the advice and consent of the state Senate and they need not be attorneys. Magistrates collectively resolve nearly one million cases per year, about fifty percent of which relate to traffic offenses and twenty-five percent civil disputes. Much of their business is resolved simply by bond forfeitures, in that citizens charged with minor offenses (traffic infractions, leash law violations) often pay their fines without appearing in court. Because they play such important roles in the judicial system–hearing so many disputes, and also holding pretrial and preliminary hearings in cases involving individuals charged with serious offenses–magistrates have increasingly been required to obtain specialized training. Recent changes in state law have also added educational qualifications. Since 2005, persons lacking a college degree have been ineligible for an appointment as magistrate.
A comparable judicial organization exists in the approximately two hundred locations in which municipal courts have been created by the local governing bodies. Judges in these courts have no civil jurisdiction, and are solely intended to hear violations of state statutes and municipal ordinances subject to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment not exceeding thirty days.
Carbon, Susan, Larry Berkson, and Judy Rosenbaum. “Court Reform in theTwentieth Century: A Critique of the Court Unification Controversy.” Emory Law Journal 27 (summer 1978): 559–607.