S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, March 5, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.0305.court.htm


Family Court changes can make big difference in lives
By Andy Brack
Publisher
SC Statehouse Report

MARCH 5, 2006 - - For months, a group of state senators has worked quietly to reform the way the state’s family court system works to make it perform better for those stuck in it.

In the coming week, senators will discuss the changes to the system, which deals with divorce, alimony, child custody and visitation, and juvenile criminal offenses, among other things.

In the late 1970s, family court became a unified statewide system, but hasn’t been overhauled since. In the intervening decades, observers say the system has become so clogged that children and families often find themselves mired for months - - or years - - before they can get resolutions to challenges.

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to read the full version of the special Senate committee's report on family court reform, please click here.

“Today, Family Court is so inundated with cases that judges have on average 20 minutes per case to make decisions which have permanent impacts on a child, on a parent, on a family,” Chief Justice Jean Toal told a joint assembly of senators and House members this week. “Our Family Court system is drowning.”

State Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, led a specially-appointed panel of five senators who met in the off-session to probe what’s really happening in family court. After months of hearings and research, the bipartisan panel in January recommended five major changes to state law to improve the system:

  • Voluntary family court hearing officers. The study found much of the burden of the above-average load on family court judges involves matters that tend to be administrative. Senators and Toal recommended a voluntary system of family court hearing officers, which would include retired judges and experienced family court lawyers. These officers would handle uncontested and routine matters to allow judges to spend more time on more serious cases.

  • Mandatory mediation. Senators and Toal also recommended a mandatory mediation process be used on the front-end of family court cases to try to come to a resolution more quickly - - perhaps as soon as in six months - - before formalizing the process in a court setting. Often, court settings make matters more adversarial when they might not need to be, Toal suggested. “I believe the returns in time saved and in human anguish alleviated would be enormous,” she told lawmakers.

  • Alimony. The senators recommended tweaking the alimony system to do two major things: take into account that people in short-term marriages might not need to get permanent alimony and make the system more equitable for spouses after divorce papers have been filed. This second notion challenges current law that says anyone who has an affair while married - - even if a couple has filed divorce papers and split - - is barred from receiving alimony. Some say the current system is unfair because spouses who might need alimony wouldn't be able to get on with their lives and start another relationship while the divorce was pending - - because the post-divorce-filing relationship would keep them from getting alimony. This concept was shot down by the Senate in debate during the week, but may return in the coming week.

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    Support payments. Senators recommended changing the child support system by shifting payment to the court clerk’s office, instead of the current system of the supporting parent to the supported parent. Proponents said the shift should cut down on deadbeat parents.

  • Frivolous proceedings. Lawmakers also suggest in legislation to create state law that puts the family court process under the state’s frivolous civil proceedings act, which means people could be held more accountable for meritless lawsuits.

Ritchie said he believed the Senate would soon pass reforms to the family court system that would make it better for children and families in trouble. He added the House, which would next consider the Senate proposal, appeared to be on board with the proposals.

“The public has been clamoring for reform and they need it and they deserve it,” Ritchie said. “The judges, families and children of the state need more time to make better decisions so that children can heal faster. These reforms will achieve that goal.”


lighter side

3/5: Watch the parade, not other stuff

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:


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feedback

3/4: Committed to hydrogen economy

Publisher's note: The following letter was dated Feb. 10, but received March 4.

To the editor:

I enjoyed your column this week entitled "Start moving toward the hydrogen economy." Hydrogen is a top priority not only in the Fourth District but around the state because of the resources and infrastructure we have. This is South Carolina's chance to be a leader nationally, and I am fully committed to transitioning to a hydrogen economy and becoming energy independent. Thank you for recognizing this and discussing this important issue.

-- U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., Washington, D.C.

2/28: Drawing a connection

To the editor:

I wonder if any correlation could be drawn between the timing of the initiation of the lottery scholarship money and the tuition increases [Commentary, 2/26].

-- Butch Robbins, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Recent feedback:


scorecard

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political news items from the past week:

Thumbs up

Sanford: Gov. Sanford and former Gov. Jim Hodges appeared together at a Columbia child development center to ceremonially sign into law an extension to 2013 of Hodges' highly successful First Steps pre-school program. Sanford signed the bill, then exchanged gubernatorial pens with Hodges. They were opponents in the 2002 gubernatorial election.

Grooms: Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, introduced legislation to give the state power to oversee "isolated wetlands," no longer policed by the Federal Clean Water Act because of court rulings. The state would oversee and issue permits for discharges and the like, as well as slow down the loss of such environmentally sensitive areas. More …

Vinson: Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League is always on the ball when it comes to environmental issues such as next Tuesday's House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on limiting private bridges to the 2,400 small marsh islands in state. She is rightly drumming up advance contacts with legislators and on-site attendance at the 2:30 p.m. meeting in the Blatt Building to try to protect marshes from development.

Thumbs down

Italian china: The First Lady, Jenny Sanford, finds herself in the middle of a brouhaha over her endorsement of expensive Italian china items being sold at the Mansion and in the Statehouse gift shop. A little forethought about how such endorsements can be interpreted by others, especially the poor of the state, could have staved the proverbial bull.

Fetus rights: Legitimate issues were raised on the Senate floor this past week when senators approved a bill that would allow charges to be tried whenever criminal violence to a pregnant mother resulted in the death of her fetus. This bill needs close watching as it moves to the House. Expert testimony allegedly would identify the reasons for the fetus' death, but that raises issues akin to abortion and whether fetuses can survive outside the womb in the early stages of pregnancy. Senators were told the bill would not apply to abortions, but only to violent crime. More ...


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Just a quick note to let you know how you missed out this week. If you were a subscriber to the paid edition of Statehouse Report, you would have received the information below on Friday AND you would have gotten other special features:

  • NUMBER: 21 cents
  • HOT ISSUE: Editor Jerry Ausbands outlines how making the budget can be an ugly process
  • LEGISLATIVE AGENDA: Court, property debates ahead
  • RADAR SCREEN: Charter schools, more
  • PALMETTO POLITICS: Filing period soon
  • TALLY SHEET: Talk quickly, more new bills
  • KEEPING TRACK: Ahead on hydrogen
  • MEGAPHONE: A national disgrace

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