South Carolina’s chief judge is asking legislators to change how they fund the state’s court system, saying its current reliance on fees and fees creates an “unstable” budget situation.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Costa Pleicones told a joint session of the House and Senate Wednesday he’s deeply concerned by how much South Carolina’s courts depend on court fines and fees to operate. “Collections were down in 2015… demonstrating again the unstable financial foundation upon which the budgetary needs of your court system, in part, rest.”
Pleicones made the remarks as part of his first state of the judiciary address. This will be his only year as the state’s top judge before he reaches the state’s mandatory retirement age of 72. He replaced previous chief justice Jean Toal after she had to retire in January for the same reason.
Collected fines and fees made up $96.1 million last year, with $14.5 million going back to the court system and the rest moving elsewhere in the budget. Pleicones asked that future funding be handled based on a formula included in the state budget.
“Anyone looking at our budget will quickly understand our system is extremely labor-intensive, with more than 80 percent of our expenditures being consumed by personnel costs,” he said. “Thus, if fines and fees do not generate sufficient funds, we will have little capacity in our budget to absorb downturns.”
Pleicones also requested $5.5 million to fund a 20 percent increase in judges’ salaries. He argued current comparatively low salaries risk discouraging the state’s most qualified lawyers from seeking a judicial seat.