Justice Toal's effort to keep courts in session excludes potential jurors

Thousands of licensed drivers have been excluded from municipal court jury pools in South Carolina in violation of a state law passed earlier this year.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal recently ordered that through Feb. 15, municipal courts are to draw their jury pools from registered voters only as had been done in the past "due to the current inability" of the state Department of Motor Vehicles to comply with the law.

Toal in her order said the agency had not provided, as required by the law, a list of licensed drivers and state identification card holders by municipality.

Municipal courts hear criminal trials in cases that carry maximum sentences of 30 days in jail and fines of $500. Juries are composed of six members compared to 12 in circuit courts.

Toal told The State this week that had she not issued the Dec. 11 order, no municipal court trials could be held.

"If I don't have jury lists, I can't have court," she said. "I just can't break down the system."

Toal said she didn't know if the problem, which she noted was described to her as "some sort of automation problem" within DMV, would be fixed by Feb. 15.

Lonnie Randolph, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said Friday the new law was intended to include as many qualified people as possible in jury pools. He said Toal's order doesn't help the situation.

"The chief justice, it appears, is on the wrong side of the law," he said. "She is further disenfranchising the citizenry from being entitled to serve on juries, and criminal defendants don't get the jury selection they are entitled to by law."

Toal said she has no authority to order DMV to comply with the law.

In a written statement provided to The State, DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks said it could take six to nine months to fix the problem, "based on our initial discussion with other agencies who might need to play a role in pulling the municipality data together."

Parks said her agency doesn't have a municipality code for drivers in its database, and drivers have "never been required to provide this information." She said DMV might have to work with the State Budget and Control Board, Department of Transportation and county and municipal associations to provide the required information.

It's unknown how many municipal jury trials statewide are affected.

In Columbia, for example, there are "conservatively" an average of two jury trials per week, said the city's chief judge, Dana Turner, adding the city's courts handle more than 30,000 cases yearly.

Under a state law implemented in June, the Department of Motor Vehicles, starting in September, was to provide the state Election Commission with a list of all licensed drivers 18 or older or persons holding state identification cards.

In South Carolina, there are about 2.4 million drivers who are 18 or older, Parks said.

The Election Commission then was supposed to combine the drivers list with its list of registered voters and provide a merged list to municipal courts for jury selection.

"As an interim measure, we have provided the Election Commission with the same file we have provided in the past," Parks said in her statement.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said Friday he can't understand why DMV hasn't complied with the law, noting, "When we write laws, we expect the general public to follow them; it applies to government agencies as well."