State courts need nine new judges to keep pace with increasing legal disputes and to reduce a backlog of undecided matters, Chief Justice Jean Toal told legislators Wednesday.
She recommended adding three circuit judges and six family court judges, a step estimated to cost $3.3 million initially.
Toal called the request the “centerpiece” of her annual State of the Judiciary report to the General Assembly.
Without more judges, “our system is in trouble,” she said.
Some key legislators say more judges will probably be approved in phases.
“I’m hopeful we can start adding at least some shortly,” said House Judiciary Committee chairman James Harrison, R-Columbia.
Toal indicated that gradual addition is acceptable.
“I realize you may not be able to do it today,” she told the 170 lawmakers, emphasizing that extra family court judges are “a huge priority.”
Currently, there are 46 circuit judges and 52 family court judges.
Circuit judges handle criminal charges and most civil disputes, while family court judges focus on divorces, child support and most matters involving children under 17.
Reducing a caseload that averages 5,011 per judge – triple the national average – is vital both for economic development and for families, Toal told lawmakers.
Her message was couched in bipartisan appeal.
It’s “very important” to companies looking to expand that legal conflicts can be settled quickly, she said. That’s a message echoing what many Republicans who control the Legislature say.
Persistent delays also mean “people who need help suffer,” Toal said. That’s a message similar to concerns of many Democrats.
She also pledged increased efforts to lessen backlogs that she described as intolerable.
Plans are taking shape to end the “horse and buggy” standards on when matters come up for decisions, she said.
A panel is looking at steps like mandatory mediation, assuring a “fast-track” for some matters and guaranteeing more time for complex disputes while setting aside less for simpler ones, she said.
Harrison called that “sending a signal” to prosecutors who now are in charge to dispose of many matters faster or the top state court will intervene and shift control of dockets to judges.
Toal also promised steady attention to continued automation of court operations and records, saying the entry of South Carolina’s judiciary into the digital age is off to a good start.