|South Carolina Courts
The Supreme Court is the highest court in South Carolina. The Court is composed of a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices who are elected to ten year terms by the General Assembly. The terms of the justices are staggered and a justice may be reelected to any number of terms.
Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals was created to hear most types of appeals from the circuit court and the family court. Exceptions are when the appeal falls within any of the seven classes of exclusive jurisdiction listed under the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals is the judicial system's newest court, having commenced operation on September 1, 1983. It consists of a Chief Judge and eight associate judges who are elected by the General Assembly to staggered terms of six years each. The Court sits either as three panels of three judges each or as a whole, and it may hear oral arguments and motions in any county of the state.
The Circuit Court is the state's court of general jurisdiction. It has a civil court, the Court of Common Pleas, and a criminal court, the Court of General Sessions. In addition to its general trial jurisdiction, the Circuit Court has limited appellate jurisdiction over appeals from the Probate Court, Magistrate's Court, and Municipal Court, as well as appeals from the Administrative Law Judge Division, which hears matters relating to state administrative and regulatory agencies.
The State is divided into sixteen judicial circuits. Each circuit has at least one resident circuit judge who maintains an office in the judge's home county within the circuit. There are forty-six circuit judges who serve the sixteen circuits on a rotating basis, with court terms and assignments determined by the Chief Justice based upon recommendations of Court Administration. Circuit court judges are elected by the General Assembly to staggered terms of six years.
The uniform statewide Family Court system was established by statute in 1976. The Family Court has exclusive jurisdiction over all matters involving domestic or family relationships. Pursuant to this provision, the Family Court is the sole forum for the hearing of all cases concerning marriage, divorce, legal separation, custody, visitation rights, termination of parental rights, adoption, support, alimony, division of marital property, and change of name. The court also generally has exclusive jurisdiction over minors under the age of seventeen alleged to have violated any state law or municipal ordinance. However, most traffic, fish, and game law violations are still triable in the magistrate or municipal courts. Serious criminal charges may be transferred to the Circuit Court.
At least two family court judges are elected for staggered six year terms to each of the sixteen judicial circuits, and rotate primarily from county to county within their resident circuits. Occasionally they are assigned to other circuits based upon caseload requirements as directed by the Chief Justice.
Masters are appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the General Assembly for a term of six years. They may serve in a full or part-time capacity and are compensated by the county governing body. Masters-In-Equity have jurisdiction in matters referred to them by the Circuit Courts. They have the power and authority of the Circuit Court sitting without a jury, to regulate all proceedings in every hearing before them, and to perform all acts and take all measures necessary or proper for the efficient performance of their duties under the order of reference. This includes the power to rule on all motions, require the production of evidence, rule upon the admissibility of evidence, and call witnesses and examine them under oath. Masters may also conduct sales under certain circumstances. There are currently 21 Masters-In-Equity. Act 55 of 1999 and Rule 53, SCRCP, altered the appeals process or final judgments. Instead of going to the Circuit Court these appeals will now go to the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals as provided by the Appellate Court rules.
Each county has a Probate Judge who is popularly elected to a four year term and has jurisdiction over marriage licenses, estates of deceased persons, guardianships of incompetents, conservatorships of estates of minors and incompetents, minor settlements under $25,000 and involuntary commitments to institutions for mentally ill and/or chemically dependent persons. They also have exclusive jurisdiction over trusts and concurrent jurisdiction with Circuit Courts over powers of attorney.
There are approximately 300 magistrates in South Carolina, each serving the county for which he or she is appointed. They are appointed to four-year terms by the Governor upon the advice and consent of the Senate. Magistrates must also pass a certification examination within one year of their appointment. Magistrates generally have criminal trial jurisdiction over all offenses subject to the penalty of a fine, as set by statute, but generally, not exceeding $500.00 or imprisonment not exceeding 30 days, or both. In addition, they are responsible for setting bail, conducting preliminary hearings, and issuing arrest and search warrants. Magistrates have civil jurisdiction when the amount in controversy does not exceed $7,500.
The council of each municipality may establish, by ordinance, a municipal court to hear and determine all cases within its jurisdiction. Such courts are part of the unified judicial system. It should be noted, however, that a municipality may, upon prior agreement with county governing body, prosecute its cases in magistrate court, in lieu of establishing its own municipal court. In addition, the council may establish, by ordinance, a municipal court, and contract with the county governing authority for the services of a magistrate to serve as its municipal judge. The Chief Justice, pursuant to his/her powers as administrative head of the unified judicial system, would, in turn, delegate authority to the Chief Summary Court Judge of the county to assign a specific magistrate as municipal judge.
Municipal courts have jurisdiction over cases arising under ordinances of the municipality, and over all offenses which are subject to a fine not exceeding $500.00 or imprisonment not exceeding 30 days, or both, and which occur within the municipality. In addition, S.C. Code Ann. § 22-3-545 provides that municipal courts may hear cases transferred from general sessions, the penalty for which does not exceed one year imprisonment or a fine of $5,000, or both, upon petition by the solicitor and agreement by the defendant. The powers and duties of a municipal judge are the same as those of a magistrate, with regard to criminal matters; however, municipal courts have no civil jurisdiction. The term of a municipal judge is set by the council of the municipality, but cannot exceed four years. Approximately 200 municipalities in South Carolina have chosen to create municipal courts.
All municipal judges are required to complete a training program or pass certification or recertification examinations, or both, within one year of taking office. See S.C. Code Ann. § 14-25-15 and Rule 509, SCACR. The examination will be offered three times each year. Members of the South Carolina Bar are exempt from the examination; however, they are required to attend the orientation program.
Each municipal judge must pass a recertification examination within eight years after passing the initial certification examination and at least once every eight years thereafter.