Court System

County governments play an important role in the state's court system. South Carolina has a unified court system under which all its courts have clearly defined responsibilities under the overall authority of the South Carolina Supreme Court. The first level within the system is the municipal court. This court has limited jurisdiction over criminal offenses occurring within the city limits and involving state laws or city ordinances in which penalties do not exceed $200 or 30 days in jail. The second level trial court is the magistrate court. This court also has limited jurisdiction, but it can decide civil cases where the amount contested does not exceed $1,000. County boundaries form the limits of the court's jurisdiction. Magistrates' range in distribution from 3 to 26 per county. They are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate. Magistrates' salaries are paid by the county government and the county is responsible for providing office space, equipment and staff to meet court needs. Some of the expenses may be recovered through the magistrate's refunding of collected fines and fees to the county.

The next level of South Carolina's trial court system is composed of circuit courts. These are courts of general (as opposed to limited or specific) civil and criminal jurisdiction. Typically, the circuit court is the appropriate court for hearing civil cases involving more than $1,000 in value and criminal cases where the penalties are more than $200 or 30 days in jail. The state rather than the county government is most involved in supporting circuit court operations. State funds cover the salaries of the circuit judges, law clerks, and court reporters as well as most operating costs. The county government pays for expenditures, such as rental and maintenance of the circuit court building or offices. Counties receive a large portion of the fines and fees collected by the circuit court (75 percent), while 25 percent of the court's revenues go to the state government.

South Carolina's unified court system features two courts of special jurisdiction: the probate and family courts. Probate courts are limited in power to supervision of estates and the resolution of contested will disputes. Probate judges are popularly elected by county voters for four year terms. The judge's salary and most office expenses are county obligations. Family courts have exclusive jurisdiction over all juveniles charged with criminal offenses are paid by state funds. Judges are elected by the General Assembly for four year terms.

All courts rely on a number of support or auxiliary personnel, such as clerks, solicitors, public defenders, coroners, and bailiffs. Most auxiliary personnel are county government employees.

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