The South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says they’re being left out of talks on how responsibilities for the control of criminal dockets are being carved up.
Executive Director Kitty Sutton said in a prepared release that ongoing discussions as to who sets the criminal docket schedule leaves out representation by defense attorneys.
“No process which shuts out this point of view can be seen as fair and it immediately guarantees that any plan generated will be suspect,” she said. “To approach this process in such a way is not only illogical, it directly contradicts promises that were previously made.”
Sutton said public and private attorneys’ groups in South Carolina were promised a role after the S.C. Supreme Court struck down a 1980 law giving the state’s solicitors control over scheduling dockets.
Since then, Chief Justice Jean Toal has met with an informal working group comprised of several solicitors and two lawmakers who are former prosecutors.
“Conspicuously absent from that group is anyone representing the people who actually are charged with crimes and forced to live under the cloud of accusation until their cases are called for trial,” Sutton said.
Toal could not be reached for comment Friday.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe was selected to be part of that group.
His stance is that it’s not up to the Supreme Court to decide how the docket is controlled.
“I firmly believe that it is the legislature’s job to determine how the criminal docket should be run in our state and not the job of the judicial or executive (the state’s solicitors) branches of government,” Pascoe said.
“The South Carolina Constitution makes it clear that the judiciary shall make rules governing the practice and procedure in the courts of the State but subject to the statutory law handed down by the legislative branch of government,” he said.
Sutton said the Supreme Court specifically noted that “a committee will be appointed by the chief justice to propose a plan for the implementation of the changes necessary to docket management” and that the committee would “include a wide range of stakeholders” including defense attorneys.
It was the public defender’s association that filed an appeal in connection with a 2010 armed robbery case that led to the Supreme Court’s decision.
The justices upheld the conviction, but at the same time ruled 4-1 in favor of the defense association’s appeal. They found giving prosecutors the responsibility for setting criminal court dockets is “unconstitutional under the separation of powers clause of our constitution.”
The court then issued an order in December that would eventually give control over the dockets to the administrative judge in each of the state’s 16 circuits.
That plan is currently being tweaked.
“The defense bar, both public and private, is an integral part of justice. While that may be a concept lost on the general public from time to time in the heat of get-tough-on-crime political and public discourse, we expect more from the Court,” Sutton said. “We expect the Court to acknowledge the importance the defense plays and not treat our public and private defenders as second-class citizens.”