South Carolina constitutional amendment would automatically appropriate 1% of general fund to judiciary every year

Concerns over court funding have been ongoing for years, even decades. However, the idea of getting the judiciary’s budget out of legislative arena and guaranteeing a set minimum level of funding it almost as old. The latest such effort is in South Carolina, where SB 72 of 2013 would guarantee 1% of all general revenue funds go to the judiciary. The amendment to Article V would read:

Section 28. (A) The General Assembly, in the annual general appropriations act, shall appropriate, out of the estimated revenue of the general fund for the fiscal year for which the appropriations are made, to the Judicial Department an amount equal to one percent of the general fund revenue of the latest completed fiscal year.

(B) This appropriation must be contained in the Ways and Means Committee report on the general appropriations bill, the general appropriations bill at the time of third reading in the House of Representatives, the Senate Finance Committee report on the general appropriations bill, the general appropriations bill at the time of a third reading in the Senate, and in any conference report on the general appropriations bill.

(C) This appropriation shall be excluded from the calculation of any across the board agency base reductions mandated by the Budget and Control Board or the General Assembly.

The idea is not without some support.

  • The Conference of Chief Justices, for example, passed a resolution in 1973, amid the mid-1970s recession, that  “This conference supports the financing of [the courts] by an automatic  constitutional appropriation of a percentage of the General Fund Budget of each state.” (73-A-2).
  • West Virginia’s constitution has a provision since 1939 that prohibited the judiciary’s budget request from being reduced, effectively giving the judiciary a guarantee of funding at a level determined by the branch itself. When the state’s legislature and governor in fact did attempt to reduce the judiciary’s 1978-1979 budget request because it was in there view  “improper, unreasonable, and constituted an abuse of discretion”, the state’s Supreme Court of Appeal struck down the reductions (State ex rel. Bagley v. Blankenship, 161 W. Va. 630 (1978)). In 1994, the Supreme Court of Appeal, citing Bagley, noted the constitutional provision “insulated the judiciary from political retaliation by preventing the governor and legislature from reducing the judiciary’s budget submissions.” (State ex rel. Frazier v. Meadows, 193 W. Va. 20)

Recent proposals for such a guarantee have been tied to other matters affecting the judiciary.

Florida in 2010 and in 2012 considered bills that would have ensured 1% of all general revenue funds to the judiciary, but only on the condition that judges be allowed to be sue personally for their decisions and for the use of the judicial qualifications commission to punish judges, including removal from office, for their decisions.

In addition a 2011 effort in Florida to split the state’s supreme court into two panels and give more control over the courts to the legislature and governor (HJR 7111 & SJR 2084 of 2011) also included at one point a constitutional promise of 2.25% of general revenue funds to the judiciary (coverage here and here).