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Dual Role Causes Problem

In many small South Carolina towns, it can be common for a municipal court clerk to also serve as records clerk for the police department, but this dual role is improper and can lead to legal problems, according to one legal opinion.

The opinion by Danny Crowe, attorney with Crowe LaFave, LLC, found that formal relationships between officials in the municipal court and law enforcement "are strongly disfavored in our state as creating an appearance to the public of possible bias or partiality by the court in favor of law enforcement."

Crowe reviewed opinions by the State Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct and opinions by the SC Attorney General's Office. One of those opinions, Advisory Committee Opinion 08-2002, determined "a municipal police chief should not supervise the municipal court." This is based on Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires a judge to remain impartial and avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

"The concern … is the public would perceive an improper influence on judicial decisions when law enforcement has both a formal supervisory role in administration of the municipal court and is the prosecuting agency in the municipal court," Crowe wrote.

Another opinion, Advisory Committee Opinion 19-2001, also cited the code of conduct when determining that a clerk of the municipal court should not also serve as a records clerk for the police department.

Opinions by the state attorney general's office back that up. A December 1996 opinion found that "it would not be appropriate for an individual to work simultaneously for the Police Department and the Municipal Court," as the two should be "separate and distinct." Other similar opinions determined that the clerk of court serves as an arm of the municipal court and "must maintain the appearance of neutrality" and avoid any potential conflicts of interest.