South Carolina Summary Courts

When a person is accused of a crime, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that person the right to a lawyer even if he or she cannot afford one. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this basic principle more than a half century ago in Gideon v. Wainwright, and in subsequent cases that expanded the right to misdemeanor prosecutions. Yet this right is violated every day in South Carolina’s magistrate and municipal courts – collectively referred to as summary courts – where scores of people are convicted, sentenced, and sometimes incarcerated, without having been represented by counsel.

Rush to Judgment: How South Carolina’s Summary Courts Fail to Protect Constitutional Rights (January 2017)

Following disturbing reports of South Carolina courts in which those accused of crimes were charged, prosecuted, and in some instances, incarcerated, without a lawyer, NACDL, in partnership with the ACLU and the ACLU of South Carolina sought to examine what was occurring first-hand. Over the course of 8 months (Dec.2014 to July 2015) representatives of the 3 organizations conducted court observations in 27 summary courts throughout South Carolina.
The observations were stunning. There were courts in which not a single lawyer laid eyes on a case. Courtrooms where arresting officers served as prosecutors, judges meted out legal decision despite not being lawyers, and defendants were left wholly alone, as they were never even advised they had a constitutional right to a lawyer. These observations were documented in the 2016 report, Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts..

The observations were so concerning, NACDL undertook an additional investigation. Law students and legal professionals were trained to systematically gather information about court proceedings. For 3 months, in the winter and spring of 2016, they conducted research in 5 South Carolina counties{1}{1}Counties Studied: Charleston, Richland, Spartanburg, Florence, Orangeburg. Each day, teams observed misdemeanor court hearings in various venues. In every court, they found egregious, repeated constitutional violations. These observations and the data reviewed were compiled in the 2017 publication, Rush to Judgment: How South Carolina’s Summary Courts Fail to Protect Constitutional Rights.

The report findings included:

  • Less than 1 in 10 defendants were represented by counsel.
  • In more than 1 in 4 cases, the judge was a non-lawyer, the arresting officer served as prosecutor, and the accused had no lawyer.
  • 19% of those convicted were sentenced to jail, virtually all of those individuals (97.4%) did not have a lawyer representing them.

Read Summary Injustice    Read Rush to Judgment

In the wake of NACDL's reports, South Carolina Chief Justice, Donald Beatty, recalled thousands of warrants issued against individuals with low-level offenses who were accused of missing court dates or not paying fees and fines imposed. As well, the ACLU filed lawsuits in Beaufort, Bluffton and Lexington CountiesNACDL NEWS RELEASE 
In March 2018 the US District Court denied the county's, Motion to Dismiss and in 2019 the US Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, allowing the suit to proceed. 

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