South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, November 2008, #2.
The New Civil Magistrate's Rules: People's Court or Junior Varsity Common Pleas
South Carolina LawyerNovember 2008The New Civil Magistrate's Rules: People's Court or Junior Varsity Common PleasBy the Hon. James A. Turner and Matthew KellerOn January 31, 2008, the Supreme Court of South Carolina adopted amended rules for many of the courts in our state. Supreme Court Order 2008-05-01-04. Among the changes were new South Carolina Rules for Magistrate's Court (SCRMC). These rules went into effect on May 1, 2008. The changes will make the rules more familiar to attorneys who practice in circuit court, with a few notable differences. The amendments now reconcile many inconsistencies and more closely follow current South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (SCRCP). This article will attempt to identify particular changes and highlight their application in magistrate's court.
A short look at a long history
The role of the magistrate dates all the way back to the Roman Empire. The Roman Magistratus was the highest judicial figure within a defined locality, and the position was listed amongst the Cursus Honorum, which translates to `Course of Honors.' Almost all common law countries preserve magistrates in their judicial system. Magistrates are found in England, Italy, Australia, India, Mexico, New Zealand, China, Switzerland, Taiwan and more. In the United States, our federal judicial system has more than 500 magistrates and most state systems maintain magistrates or justices of the peace.
In South Carolina, early references to a county by county court system appear as early as 1692, and the magistrate's court was officially formalized in the County Court Act of 1721. Hoyt P. Canady, Gentlemen of the Bar: Lawyers in Colonial South Carolina 111-113 (Harold Hyman and Stuart Bruchey, Garland Publishing, Inc. 1987) (Originally presented as a doctoral thesis to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1979 and then later published in book form). Before the County Court Act of 1721, the only courts that existed in South Carolina were located in Charleston. Id. at 110. Citizens in the upstate would have to bear the burden of traveling to Charleston to seek legal justice. Eventually, the successful creation of a magistrate's court extended the first statewide legal system to all citizens of South Carolina.
A look at civil magistrate's court in the state of South Carolina
The governor, with the approval of the Senate, appoints magistrates to four-year terms. S.C. Code Ann. § 22-1-10 (2007). There are more than 300 magistrates in South Carolina, handling both criminal and civil cases. Large counties such as Greenville and Spartanburg have 20 magistrates, while the smallest populated counties operate with as few as two magistrates.
Magistrates have territorial jurisdiction limited by county lines, yet they hold concurrent subject matter jurisdiction with the circuit courts in civil cases that do not exceed $7,500 in claim and/or damage. § 22-3-10. However, a magistrate's court is not limited to a dollar amount when a landlord/tenant controversy arises under Title 27, Chapter 33 through Chapter 41. § 22-3-10(10). Magistrate's court does not have jurisdiction when the State is a party and the amount in controversy exceeds $100. § 22-3-20(1).
In 2002, the legislature empowered magistrates to preside over real estate Interpleader actions that involved the distribution of earnest money that does not exceed the jurisdictional dollar amount. § 22-3-25. It is interesting to note, except under claim and delivery actions and landlord/tenant remedies, magistrates presiding over civil cases can only award money damages and do not have any statutory power to hear claims of equitable nature. § 22-3-10(1-14) (only provides 14 causes of action for civil magistrates to preside over); Montalbano v. Automobile Ins. Co. of Hartford, Conn., 218 S.C. 367, 62 S.E.2d 829, 831 (1950) ("action was instituted in a magistrate court à which court has no equitable jurisdiction); Driggers v. Cannon, 107 S.C. 322, 92 S.E. 1049, 1049 (1917) ("rights growing out of such relation are equitable in their nature à cannot be administered in a magistrate's court à the jurisdiction of magistrates shall not extend to cases of chancery).
A look at the rule...