Lagging decisions focus of race for SC Supreme Court chief justice

abeam@thestate.comNovember 5, 2013 

— S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal acknowledged Tuesday the S.C. Supreme Court was “struggling” to resolve a school funding lawsuit that has been pending for two decades, including the last five years before the state’s highest court.

“We are struggling,” Toal told the state’s Judicial Merit Selection Commission during a public hearing on her bid for a new term as chief justice. “I don’t mind admitting that.”

The timeliness of Supreme Court decisions is a major issue in Toal’s candidacy for another term as chief justice. Normally, a judge’s re-election is a formality. But, this year, Associate Justice Costa Pleicones is challenging Toal to be the state’s top jurist.

The school funding case is cited as a prime example of the court’s lagging decisions, compounded by the sudden death last month of Steve Morrison, the Columbia attorney who litigated the case for years but never saw its conclusion. The Supreme Court also took nearly two years to decide a lawsuit challenging the state’s 78 sales-tax exemptions – another case that lawmakers were watching closely because of its potential impact on the state budget.

Pleicones questioned the timeliness of the court’s decisions Tuesday, telling a panel of lawmakers and lawyers vetting his qualifications – and Toal’s – that he would do better.

“One of the things I find disquieting is our sometimes lack of expedition in the processing of cases,” Pleicones told the commission. “I would make it a point of emphasis in my administration because I believe the core mission of our court is the thorough and timely processing of the cases that are brought before us by people.”

Toal said many factors contribute to the backlog of cases, including the amount of time it takes to get court transcripts – about nine months on average. To reduce the time it takes to get a transcript, Toal said she wants S.C. courts to start using voice-recognition software in many cases to produce transcripts, citing the state of Utah, which cut its waiting time for transcripts to 18 days from 11 months. Dorchester County already uses voice-recognition software, and Toal told Merit Selection commissioners she would like to expand its use into 11 more counties next year.

But Toal said some cases, including the school funding case, “take an awfully long time to try to speak with anything like one voice.”

Toal and Pleicones also both bemoaned the roller coaster ups and downs of the judicial branch’s budget, pledging to work with lawmakers to find a more stable funding source to pay for the state’s courts.

The Merit Selection Commission asked Pleicones about his reputation as being a “contrarian,” citing his frequent dissents on decisions. Some members also questioned his administrative experience to lead the state’s judicial branch as its chief executive, another role the chief justice plays. Pleicones dismissed those concerns, saying lawmakers did not elect him to the Supreme Court to “go along to get along” and adding he has an intimate knowledge of how the state’s legal system works.

Commission members saved some of their toughest questions for Toal, asking her why a survey of the state’s lawyers found some accused her of being “insulting and demeaning” during hearings and that she would “hold grudges.” They also asked Toal about an incident at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in 2007, where she was ticketed in a hit-and-run accident. And state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, asked her about Associate Justice Donald Beatty’s recent comments that the Supreme Court was “prepared to undo” any legislation that dealt with court administration.

“I’m not perfect,” Toal told the commission, adding her attitude toward lawyers before the court is “respectful.” She said she left the scene of the 2007 accident because she was late for a USC Law School event and did not see any damage to the other car. And she told commissioners that her “brothers and sister on the court” would “treat any legislative enactment with ... fairness and objectivity.”

The commission voted unanimously that Toal and Pleicones were both qualified for the job. State lawmakers will decide who gets the job in the spring, with S.C. House and state Senate members voting in a joint session.

Neither Toal nor Pleicones would be able to serve a full 10-year term. Mandatory retirement would force Toal, 70, to quit on Dec. 31, 2015, and Pleicones, 69, would have to retire about five months later.

It is rare to have a contested race for chief justice. Tradition holds the justice on the court with the most seniority usually gets the job. But this is Pleicones’ last chance to be chief justice, as both he and Toal are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 72.

Commissioners asked Toal on Tuesday why she publicly said she was not running for another term, only to change her mind. Toal said she had discussed not running with family and friends but never publicly.

“I agonized over that decision, and I came to view this would be in the best interest of the court system,” Toal said. “I make no apologies for that – and I say that very respectfully.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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