S.C. legislators to debate who controls court docket

The Associated PressFebruary 4, 2013 

— A discussion over who should control South Carolina’s court schedules is heading for the state Legislature this week.

State lawmakers on Tuesday are expected to take up debate on a piece of legislation that would return control to prosecutors with certain protections. The bill, sponsored by dozens of lawmakers – many lawyers and a few former prosecutors among them – removes the word “exclusively” from the state statute governing prosecutors’ control of the case management system. It also adds a provision noting that the prosecutor’s management of the docket shouldn’t in any way interfere with the rights of a person on trial.

Local prosecutors throughout the state have long decided when to call cases to court. But in November, South Carolina’s Supreme Court ruled that state law giving local solicitors that power was unconstitutional, siding with public defenders who said the law violates the separation of powers by giving judicial responsibility to a prosecutor, or member of the executive branch.

The court also issued an order putting judges in control of case docketing, a system that had been set to go into effect this week. But after state prosecutors challenged the opinion – solicitors’ request for another hearing was ultimately denied – the Supreme Court instead opted to put together a panel to study the best way to manage the state’s court calendars.

South Carolina is the only state where prosecutorial control has been set in statute, but two other states also involve prosecutors in docket management, according to the National Center for State Courts. In North Carolina, district attorneys schedule criminal cases, but the court system has ultimate authority over trial calendars. Maryland prosecutors set trial dates, but a county’s chief judge can make changes.

Recent legislative efforts in both states to wrest that control from prosecutors completely have been unsuccessful. Many other states previously had such a practice, according to NCSC, but opted decades ago to shift control from prosecutors to within the court system in an effort to improve efficiency.

“For the most part, the practice has been done away with,” NCSC analyst Bill Raftery said. “Most states have already had this fight, but they had it 30 years ago.”

In many places, Raftery said, prosecutors work with judges on scheduling – something that David Pascoe, a prosecutor currently serving as president of the state’s solicitors association, says has been happening anyway throughout the state.

“We set the calendar, but it’s ultimately the judge that decides when the case is going to get called,” Pascoe said. “Prosecutors don’t grant speedy trial motions. We don’t grant continuances. All we can do is set an initial date for a case, and then it’s up to the defense and the judge on when that case is ultimately called.”

Fielding Pringle, chief public defender for Richland County, called the legislative push a waste of taxpayer money.

“The legal community has a responsibility to now come to the table to work together to … develop a system of docket management that is efficient, just, and fair,” she said.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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