Wednesday, December 23, 2009
The South Carolina Supreme Court has vacated and remanded a judgment in a home foreclosure matter. The problem? The presiding master was unable to attend the hearing and had signed the judgment presented by counsel later:
We categorically reject [noteholder] LaSalle's contention that the absence of the judge at the hearing was a harmless error. The law recognizes two kinds of errors: trial errors and structural defects. The former are subject to "harmless error" analysis while the latter are not. In State v. Mouzon, this Court quoted a leading United States Supreme Court case, Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991), in explaining that "trial errors  are subject to harmless error analysis"; however, "structural defects in the constitution of the trial mechanism  defy analysis by harmless error standards." 326 S.C. 199, 204, 485 S.E.2d 918, 921 (1997).
[Trial errors] occur during the presentation of the case to the jury, and may therefore be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine whether its admission was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Structural defects affect the entire conduct of the trial from beginning to end.
Id. at 204, 485 S.E.2d at 921 (quoting Fulminante, 499 U.S. at 308-09) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). See also Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 282 (1993) (explaining deprivation of the criminal defendant's right to a jury trial, "with consequences that are necessarily unquantifiable and indeterminate, unquestionably qualifies as 'structural error'").
We hold that the absence of a judge at a court hearing is a structural defect. The Court is troubled by LaSalle's trial counsel's efforts to proceed without a presiding judicial officer as well as the submission of the erroneous proposed order to the judge. The purported hearing was a nullity, and the resulting order must be vacated. The judge's absence from the hearing deprived the Davidsons of the opportunity to be heard and, thus violated their constitutional guarantee of procedural due process.
The same judge may hear the case:
The final matter we address is the Davidsons' request that we remand the case to a different judge. We decline this request. While the execution of LaSalle's counsel’s proposed order was unfortunate, we discern nothing in the record warranting mandatory disqualification of this Master. Moreover, had the Davidsons filed a motion asking the Master to reconsider his order, we believe the Master would have vacated the order and conducted a proper hearing, as he attempted to do after jurisdiction had transferred to the appellate court. While it may be difficult to understand how an order was issued from a hearing that never happened, we put the matter into context by recognizing the enormous caseloads handled by our state's excellent Masters, especially with respect to mortgage foreclosures.