South Carolina Courts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

March 31, 2020Alerts

The South Carolina court systems, under the leadership and direction of its Supreme Court, has taken measures to protect its citizens while offering access to the legal system during the state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the entry of orders and memorandum, the Supreme Court has maintained a level of functionality while limiting interpersonal contact and the delivery and receipt of documents to protect the health and rights of its citizens, judges, attorneys, and staff.  Below are overviews of the orders and memoranda entered and their effects on the operations of courts in the state of South Carolina.

Summary Court

By order dated March 16, 2020, the Supreme Court postponed all jury trials and cancelled all roll calls and other large gatherings before Magistrate and Municipal Judges. The Summary Courts are to remain open to accept filings and payments (including bonds), to transmit necessary information to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and National Crime Information Center, to remain in compliance with financial accounting, and to hold emergency hearings. The Supreme Court also ordered the release of persons charged with non-capital offenses without surety, suspended the issuance of bench warrants for failure to appear and required that the Summary Court have bond hearings at least once per day. If a Summary Court finds it necessary to close, the Summary Court must post on its door the location of the nearest other magistrate’s court.

Master-In-Equity and Special Referees

On March 17, 2020, the Supreme Court of South Carolina issued an order rescheduling all evictions then scheduled to occur between March 17, 2020, and March 31, 2020. The hearings are to be rescheduled beginning May 1, 2020. Then, on the following day, the Supreme Court of South Carolina entered an order superseding its March 17, 2020 order. The order dated March 18, 2020, reiterated that all eviction matters scheduled from March 17, 2020 through March 31, 2020, are rescheduled to May 1, 2020 or later. The superseding order also restricted the courts from proceeding in any eviction or foreclosure matters and prohibiting the courts from accepting applications for ejectment, issuing writs of ejectment, holding foreclosure hearings and sales, issuing writs of assistance for ejectment, or proceeding in any manner with regards to foreclosure hearings.

Family Court

By order dated March 16, 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court limited hearings before the Family Court. Until further order of the Supreme Court, the Family Court will only hear emergency matters including, but not limited to, DSS Emergency Protective Custody, Juvenile Detentions, Bench Warrants and Emergency Petitions for Orders of Protection from Domestic Abuse. Attendance of these emergency hearings is limited to attorneys, their clients, and necessary witnesses.

Circuit Courts

On March 16, 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued an order requiring all circuit court judges to return their home circuits. All hearings were cancelled with the exception of emergency hearings to be held at the discretion of each circuit’s Chief Judge for Administrative Purposes. Each circuit court judge were restricted to hold hearings only on emergency matters in their circuit of residence unless (s)he receives an order to preside over emergency hearings outside his/her circuit of residence or must do so under their duties of chief judge in a circuit other than his/her circuit of residence. All circuit court judges not on vacation or administrative leave are assigned to chambers.

Trial Courts

The Supreme Court of South Carolina issued a memorandum dated March 16, 2020, in response to the state of emergency declared in the State of South Carolina. The memorandum postponed all jury trials indefinitely, and cancelled all roll calls and other large gatherings until further notice. The courthouses are to remain open to accept filings and payments, hold emergency hearings and report necessary information to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the National Crime Information Center and the County Statistics Portal. Video and telephonic hearings were authorized to conduct hearings as necessary (video hearings being indicated as the preferred method). Litigants represented by counsel were excused from attending routine hearings, and no bench warrants will be issued for failure to appear at this time.

Appellate Courts

On March 20, 2020, the Supreme Court issued an order outlining the manner in which the State’s appellate courts will operate during the novel coronavirus pandemic. All pending oral arguments scheduled before the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals are cancelled until further notice unless or until the respective appellate court feels it is appropriate to hear such arguments.  If so, the court will consider alternative methods to present arguments before the court. 

The Supreme Court is accepting delivery of documents to its lobby. A drop box may be used to minimize contact in the future and will be made available to the public to provide documents to the Court.  Parties may continue to fax documents to appellate courts. However, the rule requiring that a physical copy of the faxed documents be mailed to the respective court is suspended and will not be required unless requested to do so by the clerk of court due to illegibility of the faxed documents. Large documents may be faxed in multiple smaller transmissions with a separate cover sheet provided for each transmission. If a filing fee is required, a check or money order must be mailed to the appellate court within five days of filing. 

The appellate courts will quarantine all documents for 48 hours upon receipt, and the courts discouraged the use of personal service as the preferred method of service due to risk of exposure to COVID-19.  The Supreme Court’s building will be closed to the public except for filings that can be made in the lobby. In the event the Supreme Court closes, all days closed will be considered a “holiday,” as provided for in applicable procedural rules.

The Supreme Court’s order dated March 20, 2020, provided for the Court of Appeals to supplement the order with an order regarding its operations, including filing procedures and public access to facilities. By order dated March 26, 2020, the Supreme Court also authorized the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Office of Commission Counsel to submit supplemental guidance for the operation and function of its offices during the state of emergency.