COLUMBIA -- The state's top judge told lawmakers Wednesday she opposes bills that would ban her court from regulating lawyers statewide, though certain changes could help prevent another bar exam controversy.
"I believe our present system works well, but can our system of bar examination and discipline be improved? Of course," Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said during her annual State of the Judiciary speech to the General Assembly.
Toal said, for example, that automating the bar exam testing process could help prevent a "repeat of this year's scoring error." And she noted an American Bar Association team is scheduled next month to review how the state's attorneys and judges are disciplined.
Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, who sponsored two bills that would transfer regulation of the legal profession from the Supreme Court to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said Toal's speech should "open the door" to holding legislative hearings on the bills.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
As she did in Charleston last month, Toal defended her court's handling of the July bar exam. The court received a firestorm of public criticism over its Nov. 2 decision to throw out the wills, trusts and estates section of the exam, which allowed 20 people who initially had flunked the exam to pass.
They included the daughters of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Harrison, R-Richland, and longtime Circuit Judge Paul Burch of Pageland.
Harrison told The State earlier he contacted court officials after learning his daughter flunked the exam, though he stressed he did so only out of concern that an unusually large number of examinees might have failed the wills, trusts and estates section.
Toal said Wednesday her clerk of court whom Harrison said he contacted informed her about the discovery of an examiner's scoring error on the wills, trusts and estates section. But she said as her court "deliberated this matter, we had no information about the identity of the examinees or their law schools."
Harrison, who attended Wednesday's speech and spoke with the other four justices beforehand, said afterward he believes clerk of court Dan Shearouse never informed Toal about their earlier conversation.
"I know there are people out there who believe in conspiracies," Harrison said. "But where is there any evidence that would disprove what she said? I would love to see it."
Harrison said his daughter, Catherine Harrison, who graduated from the USC law school in May, continues to work as a law clerk for 5th Circuit Judge James Barber.
Rep. Thad Viers, R-Horry, who passed the July bar exam without the high court's intervention, said Wednesday he was satisfied with Toal's explanation.
Toal reiterated her call for lawmakers to pay for three additional circuit judges and three additional family court judges to help reduce large case backlogs. She also asked lawmakers to make court revenues from fines and fees a permanent part of her department's approximate $58 million budget.