The Constitution of the United States and South Carolina are the fundamental law of our judicial system. All other laws, regardless of their source, must not conflict with the U.S. Constitution; and all state laws, regulations, and ordinances must not conflict with the S.C. Constitution.
All magistrates and municipal judges must strictly heed the provisions of the Constitutions. The two Constitutions may be found in Volume 21 of the Code of Laws.
2. The South Carolina Code of Laws
The S.C. Code of Laws is the basic authority for all state courts and is of particular importance to the magistrates' and municipal courts. The Code is the collection of the Acts (laws) passed by the S.C. General Assembly. It also includes the United States and South Carolina Constitutions, Rules of Court, and Administrative Rules and Regulations.
Each statute (law) has a particular title, chapter, and section number and is usually written by using numbers and letters separated by hyphens. For example, Title 1, Chapter 1, Section 10 is written "S.C. Code Ann. § 1-1-10." To find a particular statute, this series of numbers (a citation) is used.
Our Code is annotated. This means that below each statutory provision are brief summaries of certain court opinions which interpret and apply the statute to particular cases. These opinions are binding upon a magistrate or a municipal judge in a similar case. Since these case notes may report a case that has been overruled or distinguished by a more recent case or by an amendment to the statute it interprets, the magistrate or municipal judge must exercise caution in applying these cases. In addition, it should be recognized that a case note is intended to be used as a research tool and not as final authority. The case note should not be relied upon as a complete and accurate restatement of the case. Therefore, the case itself should be read in its entirety prior to application.
Magistrates and municipal judges should take notice of the fact that the Code is supplemented by pocket parts which bring the statutes up-to-date by including any changes in the law. Each time a statute is researched, the magistrate or municipal judge should check the pocket part to insure that the law has not been amended or repealed.
An "A to Z" general index to the contents of the entire Code is contained in two soft cover volumes. Every magistrate and municipal judge should develop a good working knowledge of this these index.
The opinions of the Supreme Court of South Carolina constitute the case law of this state. These opinions are contained in the volumes of the South Carolina Reports, the Southeastern Reporter, and the Southeastern 2nd Reporter.
These decisions are precedent, that is, they are binding authority on any issue which has been previously decided by the S.C. Supreme Court. The most recent opinion controls; however, a magistrate or municipal judge may follow an earlier decision if the issues can be distinguished from the more recent opinion and the issue in the earlier case is identical to the case before the magistrate or municipal judge.
One problem in the use of case law is finding the law. As an example, the first case annotated under S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-620 (Supp. 1999) "Assault and Battery with Intent to Kill" is State v. Sutton, 333 S.C. 192, 508 S.E. 2nd 611 2d 41 (S.C. App.1998). A magistrate or municipal court judge who desires to read the whole case would find the decision on page 192 of Volume 333 of the South Carolina Reports, or on page 41 of Volume 508 of the Southeastern Reporter, Second Series. In each case citation, the first number refers to the volume number, the letters refer to the title of the Reporter, the second number indicates the page number in the volume, and the number in parentheses is the year in which the case was decided.
Local ordinances have the same authority as statewide statutes within the area to which they apply. Each magistrate and municipal judge should have a current copy of all ordinances of the area in which he/she presides. Local law, while indexed in the 1976 code, cannot be found there. Reference should be made from the index to the South Carolina Acts and Joint Resolutions.
The S.C. Supreme Court has created various rules governing practice in all courts of the state. A good working knowledge of the rules of practice should be gained by each judge. These rules are located in Volume 22A of the Code.
6. Attorney General's Opinions
The Attorney General is the chief legal officer of the State and often gives legal opinions on many subjects to various government officials. The magistrate and municipal judge will find the Attorney General's Opinions particularly helpful in areas of the law in which no court decisions can be found.
Article V, Section 4 of the S.C. Const. provides that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall be the administrative head of the unified judicial system. This section further provides that the Chief Justice shall appoint an administrator of the courts and such assistants as he shall deem necessary to aid in the administration of the courts of the State. The cooperation of each magistrate and municipal court judge with the administrative procedures promulgated by the Chief Justice and the Office of Court Administration is necessary in order to achieve an efficient and uniform court system.
The South Carolina Judicial Department website may be accessed at the following address: http://www.sccourts.org/. On this website you can access opinions of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, the Court Rules, and Advisory Opinions. You can also access the Magistrates and Municipal Judges Bench Book. To access the Bench Book, follow these directions: under the seal on the left side of the screen, click on Trial Courts, then Magistrates Courts or Municipal Courts, and then Bench Book. The South Carolina Code of Laws and legislative information may be found at http://www.scstatehouse.net/.