Toal to address major issues at S.C. Bar meeting

COLUMBIA -- Exploding criminal and civil caseloads, the lack of stable funding and the bar exam controversy are among topics the state's top judge says she will address Friday at the annual S.C. Bar convention in Charleston.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal's annual state-of-the-judiciary speech is considered a preview to her annual address to the Legislature.

Toal's top priority in her proposed 2008-2009 budget is money to pay for three more circuit and three more family court judges at a total cost of about $2 million, including staff expenses. The state has 46 circuit and 52 family court judges in full-time positions.

In last year's state-of-the-judiciary speech, Toal called for the creation of the six judgeships. The House passed it, but the bill died in the Senate.

"I'm not giving up on it," Toal told The State Wednesday. "It's such a crying need."

Circuit judges hear criminal cases involving sentences of more than 30 days and civil cases involving amounts of more than $7,500.

Nearly 4,300 civil and criminal cases per circuit judge are being filed yearly -- which is among the highest ratio of filings per judge in the United States, according to Toal's budget request.

But getting lawmakers to spend more money on judges in a projected tighter budget year won't be easy, said Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, an attorney who led a commission on family court reforms.

"We'll have to see how the revenues turn in the spring," Ritchie said.

Toal again will call for a more stable source of funding for the state's courts. She pointed out that when she became chief justice in 2000, all but 1 percent of the department's $41 million budget came from state appropriations.

Today, about 25 percent of the department's approximate $58 million in total expenditures are covered by fines, surcharges and fees, she said. Those revenues are authorized in temporary budget provisos she wants to see made permanent.

Toal said she plans Friday to address the controversy surrounding the July bar exam, though she declined to discuss specifics. The five-member Supreme Court created a storm of public reaction in November when it threw out a section of the test that determines who will become a lawyer -- allowing 20 people who had flunked the test to pass.

They included the daughters of Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and longtime Circuit Judge Paul Burch of Pageland. The court in a prepared statement has denied showing favoritism.

The issue isn't on today's agenda of the S.C. Bar's legislative body -- the 185-member House of Delegates --Bar President Lanny Lambert said Wednesday.

The delegates are set to debate several issues, including a court rule dealing with the method of appointing lawyers for poor people in criminal and civil cases.