Article published December 22, 1990
Judge, solicitor at odds
Criminal case backlog fuels running feud
A Spartanburg County courtroom this week turned into the flash point of a simmering conflict between Circuit Judge E.C. Burnett III and 7th Circuit Solicitor Holman Gossett, who once lived on the same street as children.
The acrimony between Burnett and Gossett has continued for several years. It started about midday Monday with a venomous outburst in which Burnett labeled the Solicitor's Office staff's work "incompetence" and continued through Wednesday when he lambasted the "character" of the Solicitor's Office.
The longstanding feud between Gossett and Burnett about how the solicitor brings cases to court also resurfaced this week when Burnett conducted court for the first time after spending six months on the bench in Beaufort.
There appears little chance at resolving the differences of the two stong-willed men, neither of whom is inclined to sit down and make conciliations.
Court observers reluctant to speak publicly about the feud are uncertain how the animosity between the two men started. Many agree, however, the dislike is intense, longstanding, and unlikely to wane soon.
Gossett, 42, and Burnett, 48, grew up on La Salle Court, a quiet street off Duncan Park near the intersection of Collins Avenue and South Converse Street in Spartanburg. Burnett comes from a fairly prominent family. His father was a lawyer in Spartanburg. Gossett lived with his widowed mother two houses down and across the street.
"I don't remember any bad blood between them," said Tom DeLamar, who also grew up on La Salle Court. DeLamar, a Conway hardware store operator, doesn't recall any run-ins between the two young men and said Burnett was a bit older and didn't hang around with the younger boys as much.
The men clashed in May 1989 when Burnett threatened to have Gossett forcibly removed from a courtroom after the two disagreed over which cases to dispense with first: people in a crowded jail or those out on bond. The issue of how to move cases is one the two men - among the most powerful in the Spartanburg County courts - disagree on.
Handling cases is almost exclusively the domain of the solicitor, although there is a pending Supreme Court order that allows a circuit judge to wrest that control from the chief prosecutor.
On Monday, after two cases that might have been trials turned to pleas, assistant solicitors were searching for cases as Burnett waited on the bench and members of the jury pool sat in the courtroom. After waiting 15 minutes and a story about a college professor who told students they could leave if he was 10 minutes late, Burnett had had enough. "I'm not going to keep you here for this type of incompetence," he told prospective jurors. "I'm sorry." Burnett sent the jurors home and court shut down for the day. The term of court this week was a special one added to four preceding weeks.
Some people wondered why, if Burnett wanted to move cases so badly, he would close court for half a day over such a dispute.
The tension, which outwardly turns on fundamental questions about the administration of a prosecutor's office swamped by a backlog of more than 7,000 cases, woeful jail overcrowding and defense attorneys in no hurry to get their clients to court, promises to continue.
Under a Supreme Court order, cases are supposed to come to court within six months of the person's arrest. Statewide, 37 percent of the pending cases are six months old or older, while 54 percent of the cases in the 7th Circuit are six months old or older. Gossett repeatedly says he is moving cases as fast as he can.
Burnett is scheduled to conduct at least six terms of General Sessions, or criminal, court between January and the end of June. Because the state Division of Court Administration is low on money, circuit judges likely will be traveling less in the future. That puts Gossett in the hot seat when Burnett is in town.
The solicitor rarely enters the courtroom when Burnett is on the bench. His assistant solicitors traditionally bear the brunt of the judge's criticisms. "We're on tough grounds when asked to comment about the court's actions," Gossett said this week. "It puts me in a hard place to be able to explain a situation."
Larry Propes, state assistant director of Court Administration for circuit courts, said his office and Chief Justice George T. Gregory Jr. are aware of the animosity between Burnett and Gossett. Similar situations exist elsewhere in the state, Propes said. Propes said there is no formal mechanism in place with which to attempt to resolve the row. "Fortunately, it's not a situation that happens often," he said, adding that the solicitor could file a complaint with the state Judicial Standards Commission or with Gregory about Burnett's behavior. Conversely, Burnett could make a case to the Attorney General, the constitutional officer who oversees solicitors, that Gossett is handling his office improperly. Propes said circuit judges have made such requests, but not in the past eight years.
As recently as last year, Burnett took the rare step of taking away Gossett's authority to schedule cases. As administrative judge of the circuit - Spartanburg and Cherokee counties - Burnett had the power to order Gossett to handle jail cases before any others at every possible juncture.
Gossett and his staff agreed to work within that framework, but were unhappy with it, believing the office had the right to operate the way Gossett saw fit. When Burnett's stint as administrative judge ended, the list dried up and faded away.
On Wednesday, the distaste bubbled over when Deputy Public Defender Charlie Sanders accused Deputy Solicitor Trent Pruett of reneging on an agreement to allow a Greenville man, Charles Sink, to plead guilty to murder. Sink pleaded guilty the next day after the issue was resolved. Pruett argued that he couldn't take Sink's plea to murder until a co-defendant, Eveyln Holcombe, also worked out an agreement. He said the Public Defender's Office representation of both is a "patent" conflict of interest. As Sanders and Pruett argued before Burnett, the judge became incredulous that Pruett had not accepted the guilty plea to a murder charge.
"I have no authority to put character in the Solicitor's Office," Burnett said, adding there are about 240 people in a county jail that should hold 82. "It's appalling, the situation we have in the jail," he said. "I don't know what you're thinking," Burnett said to Pruett. "What's your problem?" Pruett, following the state Supreme Court's Rules of Professional Conduct, listened firmly as he was chastised, but did not join Burnett in a battle of words.
The rules of conduct, which recognize a judge's substantial power in a courtroom, say a lawyer should "stand firm against abuse by a judge but should avoid reciprocation; the judge's default is no justification for similar dereliction by an advocate (lawyer)."