COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s top prosecutor on Friday asked the state’s highest court to affirm his office’s authority to try criminal domestic-violence cases in municipal and magistrate courts throughout the state.
The cases at issue emanate from the lower levels of the state’s court system. But Attorney General Alan Wilson argued that the justices’ decision could have broad implications on his office’s ability to prosecute crimes.
At issue are two separate criminal domestic-violence cases in which the defendants’ attorneys argued that the attorney general had no jurisdiction to prosecute the case in summary court. In one case, a Lexington County judge sided with Wilson.
A West Columbia municipal judge sided with the second defendant, however, writing in a July 24 order that, while the constitution gives the attorney general authority in all “courts of record,” that title doesn’t technically apply to courts at the municipal and magistrate levels.
“The State Constitution does not provide that the Attorney General may prosecute in all courts of the unified judicial system,” Municipal Judge Kenneth W. Ebener wrote in his order, noting that all parties involved had stipulated that the municipal and magistrate courts were not “courts of record.”
“This Court fines the plain, ordinary, and unambiguous meaning of the words in the Constitution limits the Attorney General’s authority,” Ebener wrote, noting that Wilson needs permission from the local court or a solicitor before prosecuting such cases.
Wilson asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to consider his appeal.
In a brief filed Friday, Wilson argued that the state constitution empowers his office to prosecute cases on all levels, without any such permission.
“The Attorney General has been designated in the Constitution as the chief prosecutor of the State in every court in the State,” Wilson wrote. “A unified judicial system can tolerate nothing less.”
In 1972, South Carolina voters approved a constitutional ballot question naming the attorney general as the state’s chief prosecuting officer.
Each year, more than 36,000 people report domestic violence to law enforcement agencies across South Carolina, according to Wilson’s office. Over the past 13 years, an average of 33 women in the state have been killed annually by their partners.
To handle the prosecution of CDV cases at the summary-court level, Wilson’s office trains private attorneys to act as prosecutors on a pro-bono basis. Removing his office’s authority in that system, he argued, would hamper South Carolina’s justice system.
“The victims of these crimes deserve to have the State’s chief prosecutor prosecuting or supervising the prosecution of these cases, as well as other criminal cases in summary courts,” Wilson wrote. “The interpretation that the Town of West Columbia must, by ordinance, grant the Attorney General permission in order for him to be allowed to prosecute in that one municipal court is absolutely intolerable.”
No oral arguments have been set in the case.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP