S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Sept. 10, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.0910.jury.htm

Judicial branch often overlooked
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

SEPT. 10, 2006 - - Of the three branches of government, the judicial is the most overlooked. But in South Carolina, as in all of the states and at the federal level, it is co-equal with its siblings.

While the legislative and executive branches constantly are in the news and actively shape public opinion, the judicial branch is more behind-the-scenes, quieter and out of the limelight. It chugs away at its work like a dependable workhorse, compared to the show horse of a governor's office or race horse of a legislature.

A recent week of jury duty sent a reminder home of the vital importance of the judicial branch of government. It led to the observation that although most people groan when called for the duty, which pays a whopping $10 a day in Charleston County, those who serve do it with a great sense of responsibility and integrity. They may not really want to be in the courtroom, but they realize it's a civic duty.

That's refreshing. But what became clearer throughout the week is that jury service is a privilege. It's one of the fundamental ways, like voting, that everyday Americans distinguish themselves in helping the country govern itself. Without juries, without judges, without the judiciary, the American system of governance just wouldn't work.

We have a tested, proven and orderly way of resolving differences without civil strife. It's not without delay and frustration for those involved, but what's striking about it is that it works, time and time again. It is a fundamental characteristic of our democracy.

As a state judge noted this week, the composition of the judicial system is much more than judges, lawyers, plaintiffs, defendants, jurors and court employees. It has evolved into a collaborative partnership. While today's judges referee proceedings and still sit on lofty benches, they seem much more process-oriented to ensure the system works as smoothly as possible. Jurors, for example, are told they too are judges and without them, the system couldn't work.

Over the last 30 years, South Carolina's judicial system has undergone a quiet transformation. It's less clubby and more professional. Part of the reason, we're told, is because the state moved to a formal judicial screening system about 30 years ago that has helped to weed out people who might not make the best judges.

While this screening process remains imperfect, political and can be improved, it has resulted in a more diverse judiciary with women comprising 17 percent of state judges and African-Americans making up 6 percent of the judiciary. (As a comparison, 27 percent of lawyers are women; 5 percent of lawyers are black.)

Another change from about 30 years ago that modernized the state judiciary was the implementation of a special family court system. These days, there's call for more reform of the system, but the fact that family cases are separated and specialized makes South Carolina's overall system work better.


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"By any yardstick, my brothers and sisters who wear the robe and all who work for the courts of South Carolina are the finest in America," Chief Justice Jean Toal told lawmakers in March during an annual State of the Judiciary address.

In South Carolina, the judicial branch is allocated less than 1 percent of the state's $5.6 billion budget to do its work as part of our check-and-balance structure of government.

Through the years, South Carolina's court system has become more efficient and a model to other states through its use of Internet technology to manage an overburdened caseload. It has more judicial training. It offers more alternatives to court to resolve differences.

Yes, challenges remain, such as our state's judges having the highest trial caseload in the country. Sentencing needs to be reviewed to develop reasonable measures to lower costs but ensure violent prisoners stay in jail. More streamlining may help ease court burdens. And added dispute resolution alternatives may help improve things.

But what is clearest after a week of jury duty is the system works. And it's more than a duty - - it's a privilege to be able to serve in a system that civilly seeks to do what's right through common sense and an orderly process.

Send your comments to Andy Brack at brack@statehousereport.com. His book of commentary, Bugging the Palmettos, is available for $15.00. Click here for more.

Recent commentary

lighter side
9/10: Welcome to the club

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:

9/5: SC State is a gem

Publisher's note: While we got a half dozen letters of thanks last week for Andy Brack's column on S.C. State's national recognition, we've received 13 so far this week. In the interest of space, we provide two samples, but many thanks to everyone for their kind words.

To the editor:

After reading the commentary, I want to express my most sincere appreciation for recognizing a South Carolina gem that is often overlooked, misrepresented and ignored, except when issues arise promoting opportunities for negativity and speculation.

South Carolina State alumnus have been aware and proud of the accolades that are mentioned in this report and in your commentary. We know our Alma mater has prepared us to compete and to out perform our colleagues from other more well - known and "prestigious" institutions; yet, we are humble, "loyal sons and daughters".

-- Robertretta Brown Patterson, Columbus, Ohio

9/5: Newspapers missed story

To the editor:

It's amazing how The State paper missed putting this in big print and in a prominent place in the paper. If it had been USC or Clemson it would have been on the front page in big bold colored letters.

As an alumnus of SCSU, I am grateful that you saw fit to put this in your publication. This is truly something positive for the state of South Carolina. Thank you for publishing this information. It is one of those "Unknown Facts."

--Jannette Henry-Davenport, Fairfield County, SC

Recent feedback

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"It's not everyday you learn your school is ranked one of the top in the nation. But that's just what happened recently for Dr. Andrew Hugine, president of S.C. State University in Orangeburg. ... What he's happy about is a new guide to the nation's universities by Washington Monthly magazine that rates S.C. State as its ninth best university, an accolade that puts it in the same league as M.I.T., Stanford and Cornell."

From the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, 9/7/06

"South Carolina State University is ninth among national universities in this year’s Washington Monthly college rankings....The magazine said its rankings consider how well universities foster scientific and humanistic research, promote an ethic of service to country and help the poor increase their social mobility. "

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