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 Branch 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.
When South Carolina courts decide cases that are brought before them, each judicial decision becomes part of the body of case law. Some South Carolina court decisions interpret or apply a South Carolina statute, regulation, or the South Carolina Constitution.
According to the principle of stare decisis, Latin for "let the decision stand," courts will follow their own prior decisions—and must follow (bound by) the prior decisions of higher courts—when faced with the same legal issue. For a decision to be on the same issue, both cases must be (1) governed by the same law and (2) have similar facts. A binding prior court decision on the same legal issue is precedent, meaning that the principle of stare decisis has been triggered, and the court is bound to decide the current case the same way.
When researching South Carolina case law and looking for precedents, remember that each case can address more than one issue. Each issue in a case will have a holding and a rule of the case.
In your research, you should disregard holdings and rules on issues that are not for the same issue as you are researching (governed by different laws or having different facts) because they will not be precedent on your issue. In a judicial opinion addressing multiple issues, focus only on the issue(s) you believe to be the same as yours.
The decisions of South Carolina trial courts are not published in reporters. You can access county court records by contacting the Clerk of Court where the case was tried. You may also try searching the Case Records Search by county on the South Carolina Judicial Department's website.
South Carolina appellate court opinions (Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) are first published individually as slip opinions on the South Carolina Judicial Branch website.
Next, South Carolina appellate court opinions are published in print by West in chronological order in both the official South Carolina Reports and in the unofficial South Eastern Reporter (along with Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia opinions).
(1) the jurisdiction of the court that decided the case, and
(2) the level or hierarchy of the deciding court within its court system.
Jurisdiction is the power of a court over the parties and the subject matter in cases that come before it. A court must have jurisdiction in order to hear a case and render a decision. For example, a South Carolina court has no power (jurisdiction) over disputes between two Georgia residents (the parties) or a property dispute in Georgia (the subject matter). Even within the same state, a court might not have subject matter jurisdiction. For example, a South Carolina family court has no power to hear probate matters. A Georgia court may be persuaded by an opinion from a South Carolina court, but it is never required to follow precedent from another jurisdiction.
Hierarchy of Authority
The effect of a prior opinion of a court within a given jurisdiction also depends on the level of court that decided it. The opinion of an appellate court is binding precedent (mandatory authority) for all lower courts in its jurisdiction.
For example, a South Carolina Supreme Court opinion is mandatory authority for the South Carolina Court of Appeals and South Carolina trial courts. A South Carolina Court of Appeals opinion is mandatory authority for all South Carolina trial courts. However, a South Carolina trial court opinion is not mandatory authority for either the appellate courts or other trial courts in South Carolina.