South Carolina courts are responsible for interpreting South Carolina statutes, regulations, and the South Carolina Constitution. South Carolina courts also resolve disputes that serve as an independent source of legal rules called "common-law." When a court decides a case brought before it, it issues a written opinion explaining how it arrived at its decision. These explanations, called holdings, are followed by future courts deciding similar cases. This concept is called precedent.
The result is a body of written opinions known as case law. Below is the beginning of the South Carolina Court of Appeals opinion affirming the decision of the Marion County Circuit Court in Williams v. Smalls. In that case, the trial court in Marion County held that S.C. Code Ann. § 47-7-110 did not impose strict liability upon Mr. Smalls when Mr. Williams's automobile collided with his cows that had escaped onto the highway.
As with most states, there are three levels of courts in South Carolina. Cases in South Carolina begin in trial level courts such as circuit, family, probate, or magistrate court. Most appeals from South Carolina trial courts are heard by the South Carolina Court of Appeals. The South Carolina Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. It reviews decisions of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and certain appeals, such as death penalty decisions, directly from South Carolina circuit courts.
The South Carolina Judicial Department's website provides a chart (see below) of the South Carolina judicial system, followed by a detailed description of the various South Carolina courts and the types of cases they hear.
Weight of Authority, or whether or not a decision is mandatory (binding) or persuasive (non-binding), is determined by the jurisdiction and heirarchy of the court that decided the case.
Jurisdiction is the power of a court over the parties and the subject matter of cases that come before it. For example, a South Carolina court has no power over Georgia citizens or the application of Georgia law and a South Carolina family court has no power to hear probate matters. A Georgia court may be persuaded by a decision from a South Carolina court, but it is never required to follow precedent from another jurisdiction.
Hierarchy of Authority
The effect of a prior court decision within a given jurisdiction depends on the level of court that decided it. The decision of an appellate court is binding precedent for all lower courts in its jurisdiction.
For example, a South Carolina Supreme Court decision is mandatory authority for the South Carolina Court of Appeals and South Carolina trial courts. A South Carolina Court of Appeals decision is binding authority for all South Carolina trial courts. However, a South Carolina trial court decision is not binding on either the appellate courts or other trial courts in South Carolina.
The decisions of South Carolina trial courts are not published. Researchers can access county court records by contacting the Clerk of Court where the case was tried. Researchers may also try searching the new Case Records Search by county on the South Carolina Judical Department's website.
State appellate court opinions are first printed individually as slip opinions.
Next, the opinions are published in chronological order in state and regional reporters. As part of its National Reporter System, West publishes state appellate court opinions in seven regional reporters. It adds editorial enhancements to the official opinions, including headnotes, which are summaries of the legal issues contained in each opinion. Each headnote is assigned at least one topic and key number as part of West's indexing system called digests (See Finding South Carolina Cases in Print).
South Carolina cases are published in two reporters — the official South Carolina Reports (also published by West) and along with appellate court opinions from Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia in the South Eastern Reporter.