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Courts: Magistrates will pitch in to avoid jam in traffic court
By Charles Swenson
It could take up to three months before a nominee for Georgetown County’s traffic court magistrate is screened by the governor’s office. And it will be four months after that before the appointee can begin to hear cases.
State Sen. Ray Cleary said he hopes Gov. Nikki Haley’s office will move faster. “I’m trying to rush her,” he said.
The traffic court post will become vacant March 1 when Magistrate Alan Walters steps down to take a job as director of safety and risk management for the Georgetown County School District. Cleary and state Sen. Yancey McGill, who represents the western portion of the county, submitted a candidate to the governor’s office earlier this month.
Cleary has declined to name the candidate because his 2011 recommendation of Dave Joliff for magistrate in Murrells Inlet led to accusations of misconduct by the former Horry County Police officer. He said those were all unfounded, but Joliff withdrew after Haley appointed him.
Magistrates are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. Cleary said the governor’s office only needs to get a report on the candidate from the State Law Enforcement Division. The candidate was among those considered for the Murrells Inlet opening, but was not screened at that time.
Isaac Pyatt, the county’s chief magistrate, said the new magistrate will start out in traffic court. “Traffic court is a good court for judges to get familiar with civil and criminal law,” he said. “I do my best to help them get started.”
The traffic court is in Georgetown and shares a building with the central jury court, where Pyatt presides. He and Walters both hear jury trials, hold bond hearings and issue warrants.
“It’s a lot more comprehensive than when I started,” Walters said. “That was the benefit of having the two offices in one building.”
Traffic court averages 2,000 cases a month, Walters said. It’s no longer a seasonal court. “There are just more people on the road,” he said.
In January, the traffic court collected about $100,000 in fines and fees, he said. A few years ago, January revenue was around $50,000.
The most common citation is for seatbelt violations, written by the Highway Patrol, he said. The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office has become more active in traffic enforcement, particularly through it’s Intensified Crime Enforcement team, Walters said.
He became a magistrate in 2002 after a career in law enforcement. “There wasn’t a precedent for how long you stay in traffic court,” Walters said. He had the opportunity to take over the Pawleys Island magistrate’s court when Barry McCall retired, but decided to stay in traffic court.
“I said I liked what I’m doing,” he recalled.
Pyatt said he and the other four current magistrates will take turns covering traffic court until the new magistrate completes the required courses and mentoring. “They have to go through an observation period to observe other judges,” he said.
Unless the new magistrate is an attorney, the appointee will also have to pass an exam.
Pyatt wasn’t asked for input about the new magistrate. “They don’t need my consent. That’s the senator’s call,” he said.