SC Chief Justice touts online court system in annual speech to lawmakers

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 20, 2013 

South Carolina judicial department is fast moving toward a vast electronic filing system for all court documents – civil and criminal – similar to that in federal courts, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said Wednesday in her annual State of the Judiciary address.

Toal told the General Assembly the new Ecourt system will be accessible to the public on the Internet at no charge within two years.

“That will put us light years ahead of the development of e-filing ... of any state in the country,” Toal said to applause.

Over the past 13 years, Toal said, the state has used some $45 million in federal grants to create Ecourt and make sure it has a high level of efficiency and cyber security. Privacy concerns – especially with respect to family court filings – also will be addressed.

Ecourt is expected to cost about $7 million dollars per year to maintain and upgrade, Toal said after her speech. That money will come from modest filing fees for civil cases as well as small fees from the 46 counties, she said. About 160,000 cases are filed each year in state civil and family courts.

The state will own and operate Ecourt far more cheaply than a private company could, she said.

On another note, South Carolina still ranks last in the nation in terms of how many cases its judges have to handle, Toal said.

But, Toal said, the eight new family court judges and three circuit court judges recently elected by the Legislature should go a long way to lightening the backlog. They will take office July 1.

“You have done exceedingly well,” Toal told the lawmakers, who last year appropriated more than $1 million for the new judgeships.

Of the 11 new judges, six family court judges and all three circuit court judges are newly created positions. Lawmakers elected all 11 judges earlier this year.

Challenges still facing the court system include the still “enormous backlog of ... tens of thousands of” criminal cases, Toal said.

“We have to drain the swamp of these cases,” she said.

“I recently sent a judge to hear a 15-year-old incest case!” she said. “Indicted for 15 years!” That county was Lancaster.

Toal also singled out for praise Supreme Court Associate Justice John Kittredge, who helped set up a mandatory mentoring program for young lawyers, many of whom practice on their own these days and lack the guidance of older, wiser lawyers they might get working with a larger practice.

As chief justice, Toal oversees the state’s Judicial Department, which this current fiscal year has a budget of some $60 million. That includes $43 million from the state’s general fund, $20 million in fees and other revenues and $3.8 million in federal dollars.

Toal, who will be 70 in August, gave no hint of when she might retire. Mandatory retirement age for justices is 72, and many justices traditionally serve until that age. Toal’s 10-year term expires next year.

After the speech, Toal declined to say whether she will run for another term. In South Carolina, judges and justices are elected by the 170-member state legislature. Long-serving incumbents like Toal, first elected in 1988, are rarely challenged.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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