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SC Senators Probing Upstate Judge




|| By FITSNEWS || South Carolina legislative leaders tell us judicial reform will be a top priority during the 2016 legislative session.

We challenged South Carolina lawmakers to address judicial corruption last fall … but they didn’t.  And the judiciary got even more corrupt.

That’s a shame.  Courts are critical to the protection of individual liberty and private property, and we’ve consistently argued they should be funded commensurately and administered fairly and efficiently.  Earlier this year we even advocated on behalf of pay raises for judges … something we almost never do.

The vast majority of South Carolina judges are good people.  They take the law, their cases – and the lives impacted by those cases – very seriously.  The vast majority of these judges also adhere to the “Five Canons” included in the Moral Code of Judicial Conduct – which include maintaining the “independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary,” avoiding “impropriety and the appearance of impropriety,” and conducting “personal and extrajudicial activities” in such a manner as to “minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.”

Judges are also advised to avoid political entanglements …

The goal of all this?  Blind justice … as opposed to partiality based on personal or political considerations.

This blind justice is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy (i.e. the liberty and property considerations we mentioned earlier) but it’s also essential to the provision of due process for those accused of violating our laws.  Without faith in the judiciary, the whole system falls apart.

In the South Carolina Upstate, one magistrate is being accused of undermining this blind justice – failing to adhere to the code of judicial conduct.

Magistrate Tina Gibson McMillan of Spartanburg County, S.C. – who was appointed to her post in 2010 by S.C. Senator Lee Bright – is facing a host of allegations that could sink her renomination.

According to a State Senator familiar with McMillan’s renomination – which is currently in “holdover” status – lawmakers are leery of putting her back on the bench because they believe she is lying to them about the circumstances surrounding her own divorce case.

For starters, McMillan’s case was improperly sealed by family court judge Agnes Dale Gable – who is based in Barnwell, S.C.

“That’s a big red flag,” the Senator told us.

In South Carolina, a county’s Senate delegation recommends magistrate appointments to the governor’s office – which formally nominates them.  Then the full Senate votes on those nominations.  The process is supposed to provide checks and balances, but in reality it’s a progression of rubber stamps.

Gable sealed the McMillan case at the request of her attorney, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon.  If that name sounds familiar, it should.  Brannon is adept at getting judges to seal cases involving prominent parties – including the 2013 case of former S.C. Rep. Andy Patrick.

Gotta love that “transparency,” right?

In addition to his status as “Mr. Seal-It,” Brannon was also reportedly instrumental in routing state money for restoration efforts at Barnwell’s courthouse – an expenditure which was among the handful of spending items vetoed in 2013 by S.C. governor Nikki Haley.

Haley argued the restoration funding was a local expense, not a state one – but Brannon helped override her veto, restoring the funding.

Quid pro quo?

Good question … but it’s abundantly clear the Barnwell judge was in Brannon’s debt.

But the bigger question is this: Why did McMillan want the divorce papers sealed in the first place?  What was in the divorce filing that was so dangerous to her future on the bench?

According to sources familiar with the case – and a handful of unsealed documents obtained by FITS – McMillan was allegedly involved in a relationship with a Spartanburg County deputy who frequently testified before her court.  The nature of the relationship with the officer – deputy Jamie Tate – was never conclusively determined, although one Senator investigating McMillan’s renomination told us surveillance of the couple undertaken by a private investigator revealed a “romantic tone.”

In 2013 Tate was the subject of a deposition related to McMillan’s divorce case.

In that deposition, he acknowledges being tipped off by the judge regarding the questions he was likely to face.  Among them?  Inquiries about a text message exchange in which the judge reportedly played a “joke” on him – pretending to be one of his ex-girlfriends.

The contents of this text message exchange have not yet been provided to us, although Tate specifically referenced the exchange during his deposition – and the fact that the judge tipped him off.

“She has informed me about my deposition,” Tate said under oath during questioning. “She said, ‘Hey, you know, there is going to be a thing about the text that I sent you, the joke I played on you.'”

Hmmmm …

To be clear: We’re not accusing McMillan of doing anything illegal.  And it could be there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for her extracurricular association with a deputy who regularly appeared before her court.

However McMillan’s (successful) effort to seal the family court files related to her divorce – and the alleged conflict associated with the sealing of those files – raises a host of questions.  At least one of the Senators who has to approve her renomination has privately told FITS he’s not inclined to support her unless she becomes “a lot more forthcoming” regarding these matters.

Meanwhile a S.C. House member who is still angry about Barnwell County receiving state funding for its court house renovations has vowed to investigate Brannon’s involvement in this case.

FITS reached out to Brannon regarding the sealing of the McMillan case files but did not immediately receive a response.  As this story moves forward, though, we look forward to presenting McMillan’s version of events along with additional information regarding the allegations against her.