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How Does the South Carolina Municipal Court Work?

A South Carolina municipal court is a trial court established by municipal councils and has limited jurisdiction over some criminal offenses. The South Carolina Code of Laws Unannotated gives the councils this power to develop municipal courts. The municipal court, along with the magistrate court, is called a summary court. However, South Carolina municipal courts deal with fewer types of cases than magistrate courts.

In some cases, a municipality may, with the county governing body’s consent, hold its trials in the South Carolina magistrate court, rather than establish its own municipal court. As the administrative head of the South Carolina unified judicial system, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is to delegate authority to the county’s Chief Summary Court Judge to assign a particular magistrate as municipal judge.

The municipal court handles criminal cases, including traffic offenses and other municipal code violations within the municipality. The court has jurisdiction to hear criminal cases carrying a penalty of up to 30 days imprisonment or a fine of up to $500. Note, the municipal court has no jurisdiction over civil matters.

In some circumstances, the South Carolina circuit court may transfer cases to the municipal court on the State and the defendant’s agreement. In this case, the municipal court may impose up to $5,500 in fine or up to one year in imprisonment. The South Carolina municipal judge has the same powers and duties as a magistrate with regards to criminal matters. Note, after the municipal court grants a judgment, an aggrieved party has the right to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.

The council of the municipality sets the office term of a municipal judge. However, the term cannot be less than two years and must not exceed four years and lasts until the successor is qualified and elected. Every South Carolina municipal judge must finish a training program or pass certification or recertification examinations within a year of assuming office. This examination must be taken at least once every eight years. This is as mandated by the South Carolina Code of Laws Unannotated.

The municipal judge does not have to be an attorney or have legal expertise, nor does the judge need to be a resident of the municipality to be served. However, any person who is a member of the South Carolina Bar does not have to take the certification examinations but must attend the orientation program.

If a South Carolina municipal judge is unable to complete a term, the vacancy is filled by the council appointing a successor for the remainder of the unexpired term. If the vacancy is temporary, a municipal judge of another municipality, a practicing attorney, or any other person with experience or training in municipal court procedures may fill in for the meantime. The mayor has the responsibility to appoint the person to fill in for the municipal judge’s temporary absence. The interim appointee must also take the prescribed oath of office before beginning official judge duties.

The South Carolina Municipal Court judge is subject to the Supreme Court’s disciplinary authority for any misconduct. It does not matter whether the misconduct was a judicial or non-judicial action or whether it happened before or after the municipal judge assumed office. Some of the acts that may constitute misconduct include if the municipal judge:

  • Was convicted of a crime pertaining to moral turpitude;
  • Violated the code of judicial conduct
  • Does not carry out the judicial duties or is continually neglectful or incompetent in the performance of such duties
  • Is habitually intemperate
  • Fails to issue orders, opinions, or decrees on time
  • Fails to carry out official duties without excuse or just cause

If a municipal judge is suspended, it is not a determination of guilt or innocence. It also does not follow a finding of guilt or innocence concerning a specific charge, complaint, or allegation. The suspension prohibits the South Carolina municipal judge from performing any judicial functions until further investigation.

The South Carolina Supreme Court also can remove a Municipal Court judge for physical or mental disability.

Interested persons may find South Carolina municipal court records on the relevant county’s website. Greenwood, York, and Aiken all have indexes of cases for the public. Note, the South Carolina Judicial Branch provides a map of the different counties with a case record index on its website. Select the relevant county to find the municipal court or summary court record. Provide the name of a party to the case or the case number.

Alternatively, visit the Office of the Clerk of the municipal court that handled the case. Note, there are over two hundred municipal courts in South Carolina. To find the location of a municipal court, visit the South Carolina Judicial Branch municipal judges website. Select the relevant county for a list of all the municipal judges in the county. Click on the highlighted judge’s name for the location and contact information of the South Carolina municipal court.

A municipal court case generally begins when a private citizen or law enforcement officer files a complaint against a person before the municipal judge. The person makes this complaint in writing and under oath describing the alleged crime. If the judge believes that the allegation is well-founded, the court issues an arrest warrant to apprehend the accused person.

The judge must make an independent decision as to the allegation and whether the accusation was made properly. This is because the judge must protect citizens against unwarranted and improper arrests. After the arrest of the accused, the defendant enters a plea, and the trial begins. The defendant may choose to have a jury trial or waive that right.

Note, there is no stipulated time for the completion of a South Carolina municipal court trial. However, since the court is a summary court, the court proceedings are not to be elaborate. Therefore, the time between arrest and sentencing ought to be relatively short.

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