Judges' deaths worsen family court backlog, sadden judicial community

The deaths of three family court judges in two months have further clogged the already- backlogged state family court system and cast a dark cloud on the state's small, tight-knit judicial community.

Judge Walter B. Brown, 60, of Winnsboro died Friday of cancer. Judge Mary E. Buchan, 54, of Marion died Wednesday after an extended illness. Judge Rolly Jacobs, 60, of Camden died May 13 of heart disease.

"That is just devastating to our judicial family," said Jean Toal, chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, just before attending Brown's funeral.

"They had good hearts all three of them. That's just what you need on a family court bench."

The deaths bring to 10 the number of vacancies statewide, according to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which coordinates the Legislature's election of judges.

It's an unusually high number of vacancies, Toal said. In the past three years, the highest number of vacancies has been six, according to the commission.

Vacancies usually occur when a judge retires or is promoted. Those judges continue to serve until a successor is elected. But when a judge dies, the seat is vacant until the Legislature can elect a successor. That won't happen until the next legislative session, which begins in January.

South Carolina does not appoint interim judges.

Toal asked the General Assembly to pay for six new judgeships this year, but the request was denied. She said South Carolina has the fewest judges per 100,000 population of any state in the country.

"The people of South Carolina can't afford to have their trial court have this kind of blow to it," Toal said. "Family court is the most overworked and stressed court of all of them, and that is something I have discussed with the General Assembly for three years now. ...

"These dreadful losses add to that pressure."

Family courts handle cases that involve divorces, child custody, child support, child abuse and neglect, juvenile crime and adoptions.

Family court cases have increased steadily since 1978, the earliest year records are available. At the end of the 2006 fiscal year, 34,503 cases were pending in family courts statewide the most since 1995 and the third-highest since 1978.

It costs more than $285,000 a year to employ one family court judge, according to the state office of court administration. That cost includes the judge's salary, secretary, court reporter, law clerk and other costs.

Toal requested about $1.9 million to create six new judgeships -- three family court judges and three circuit court judges during the most recent budget cycle.

Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, said the S.C. House passed a bill that would have created the six judgeships but only if they were paid for in the budget.

The S.C. Senate did not approve the bill or the funding.