The “Day in the Life” series gives an insider’s look at the professions that make South Carolina cities and towns great places to live, work and play. Municipal employees from around the state explain their role, discuss challenges they face and share interesting stories from the unique world of municipal government service.
As part of a series of articles on the duties and responsibilities of municipal employees, we spoke with three clerks of court. By maintaining legal documents and records; and assisting the judge, attorneys and the public, clerks of court are the backbone of the municipal court system.
Diane Anderson has worked as a judge, clerk of court and court administrator since 1977. She has worked in the Rock Hill Municipal Court since 1997, currently serving as the clerk of court/court administrator. She previously was a judge and clerk of court for the City of North Myrtle Beach.
Diane Anderson has worked in the Rock Hill Municipal Court since 1997, currently serving as the clerk of court/court administrator.
Anderson has seen many changes over the years that have affected municipal courts across the state. Increased state assessments and fees have greatly increased the total payment due to the court, resulting in increased money owed cities in the form of uncollected fines, she said.
“We now offer payment plans and utilize the [Municipal Association’s] Setoff Debt Collection Program in an effort to collect fines,” she said. “This works for those who are employed but many people are unemployed, so it is challenging at times to set up a monthly payment schedule for someone.”
Anderson has noticed an increase in DUI and criminal domestic violence cases. The biggest change, she said, came with recent law changes requiring automatic expungements in certain cases. The process is time consuming and costly to city budgets, and no fee can be charged for processing them, she added.
Working in the courts is unlike working in any other city department and can be difficult, Anderson said. Stress comes from security issues, difficult customers, meeting daily deadlines, preparing for bench court sessions, scheduling issues for jury trial terms, making sure there’s enough space to hold court sessions, and making sure trial judges have the staff and paperwork they need when they go into court sessions. She spends a great deal of time on the phone or email answering questions from people wanting to pay tickets online and those called on for jury duty.
For Mary Ann Davis, municipal court in Chapin is a “one-woman operation.” She has been clerk of court there full time since 2002, after retiring from Buncombe County Schools in Asheville, NC.
Davis has seen growth and expansion during her 11-year tenure in Chapin, which has more than doubled in population. When the court moves into its new facility this fall, it will expand from 2,500 square feet to 15,000 square feet. There also have been advancements in technology.
“We upgraded to the statewide court case management system in 2009,” she said. “We have the availability to pay fines online which has been a benefit for individuals as well as a time saver for the court.”
Having no previous experience in the court system, Davis said she faced a huge learning curve and had to take time to become familiar with policies and procedures. Over the years, she has taken advantage of professional development opportunities, talked with other clerks and attended court conferences and seminars. She has been a member of the Municipal Court Administration Association, an affiliate of the Municipal Association, since its inception in 2006. She currently serves on the MCAA board and served as president last year.
Lisa Cunningham has worked as a clerk of court for the Town of Bluffton since October 2006. She previously served as a data entry clerk and municipal court assistant for the Town of Hilton Head Island’s Municipal Court.
Lisa Cunningham, Clerk of Court, Town of Bluffton
Cunningham said that, as clerk, her main goals are to make sure procedures and processes are current, to look at ways to improve and be more efficient, and to maintain accurate financials.
All of the clerks of court said they face the challenges of an increased work load without the benefits of an increased budget or extra staffing. Cunningham said she has learned to rely on her team and balance staff responsibilities to meet all the demands of the job. For Anderson, the support from city management has made the greatest positive impact on her work.
The clerks often have to deal with individuals who are upset about the circumstances that brought them to court. Anderson said if she’s able to help someone involved in a court matter or ease their fears, it makes it all worthwhile.
For Davis, there is nothing greater than witnessing young people turn their lives around.
“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing a young person complete a conditional discharge for a drug-related offense and having the charge dismissed and expunged from their record,” she said. “I have had them return to see me and tell me how their lives have changed.”