South Carolina’s top judge says one of Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget vetoes would “imperil the ability of the courts to function.”
Haley vetoed $2.8 million of the state court system’s $67.8 million budget – money that would go to operate the state court’s electronic-case management system.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal – who oversees the state’s court system, formally known as the Judicial Department – says the veto could lead to shutting case-management system down.
Haley says Toal has money elsewhere in her budget to pay for the system.
The case-management system, used in all 46 S.C. counties, is a searchable online database of court records.
People use it to pay traffic tickets, and other court fines and fees. Counties also use the computer system to select randomly people for jury duty, replacing the former method of writing names on slips of paper and plucking them out of rotating drums, according to Scott Hayes, who manages the case-management system.
The court system still keeps paper records, so shutting down the case-management system would not mean shuttering the courts.
But it would make it more difficult for people to access court records, said Angus Macaulay, president of the S.C. Bar. “The veto of the Judicial Department’s entire IT operations budget has in effect severely limited South Carolinians access to justice.”
Haley vetoed the money because she said the court system does not need it.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow people to file court documents electronically, paying a fee set by the court. Once in place, the court expects the e-filing system to bring in between $6 million and $11 million a year. Haley vetoed that bill because she did not like the fees. But lawmakers overruled her and the bill became law.
In response, Haley vetoed the court system’s $2.8 million information technology budget, saying the fees from the e-filing system “should have the effect of reducing the Judicial Department’s needs for additional funding to support its technological needs.”
But Toal says the court system will not receive any money from e-filing for at least 18 months. That is how long she thinks it will take to build the e-filing system.
“They just, obviously, made a big staff mistake on that,” Toal said of Haley’s veto. “I cannot believe she really intended to affect a core, baseline service.”
Haley returns to South Carolina today from the United Kingdom, where she is attending the Farnborough Air show. But, at a news conference last week, the governor disagreed that Toal will not have the money to operate the case-management system this year.
“If they went and got that bill passed that is going to pay for their own things, that’s hard to justify when you get $10 million more a year, recurring, but you’re telling me, ‘Oh, I won’t get that money for another year,’ ” Haley said. “No, you’ve got the money now and you’ve got 10 times that.”
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said Tuesday that “even with this veto, the judicial branch’s budget grew by double-digits.”
“The chief justice also has tremendous flexibility to spend how she sees fit, and funding for nine judges who won’t exist at least until next year – and therefore don’t cost her a single dollar,” said Godfrey. “So, with all due respect to the chief justice, whom the governor thinks a lot of, she has more than enough money to run our court system.”
Godfrey suggested Toal could use some of the $4 million budgeted for the new judges to pay for the case-management system until the e-filing money starts to come in. Those judges must be elected by the General Assembly, a process that likely won’t conclude until next spring, when the state’s July 1 budget year is nearly over.
State lawmakers are scheduled to return to Columbia Tuesday and Wednesday of next week to review Gov. Haley’s budget vetoes. State law requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate to override a veto.
“I would really hope we could override that veto,” said state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “Anything that would jeopardize our judicial system, it would be foolhardy to allow that to happen.”