Last week, we penned a column criticizing S.C. circuit court judge Keith Kelly – a former state lawmaker – for the wide latitude he gave one of his ex-colleagues, S.C. minority leader Todd Rutherford, related to Rutherford appearing before his court as an attorney.
As we reported, Kelly excused Rutherford from having to appear in court on behalf of his clients on several occasions this fall – resulting in likely delays in multiple cases until January.
Why is that time frame so important? Because each year, Rutherford has immunity from having to appear in court between January and June (or later) given his status as a state lawmaker.
When can opposing attorneys get him in court? Good question …
In the aftermath of our story running, two things became readily apparent …
First, this sort of preferential treatment by judges on behalf of lawyer-lawmakers is a full-blown epidemic in this state.
And second, this epidemic is actively inhibiting the administration of justice in South Carolina – a state in which more, not less justice is urgently required.
Obviously it is not just Rutherford who benefits from these favors – but dozens of his colleagues, who routinely receive such preferential treatment from South Carolina judges (the same people they appoint, incidentally, via one of the most corrupt processes known to man).
“What judge is going to refuse an attorney-legislator who holds their fate in his or her hands?” one assistant solicitor from the Upstate told us recently. “We don’t stand a chance in those cases.”
This is particularly true for powerful legislators like Rutherford, who not only has an influential leadership position in the S.C. House but also sits on the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC), a legislatively controlled panel that selects the candidates who stand for legislative election each year.
Five of Rutherford’s legislative colleagues also sit on this panel – and not surprisingly, all five of them are attorneys (including one who has some serious conflict of interest issues).
Are we saying Rutherford is corrupt? No.
Are we saying these other lawmakers are corrupt? Not necessarily.
(Click to view)
(Via: Travis Bell Photography)
We have always liked Rutherford on a personal level, and as we noted in our original treatment of this issue “he has an obligation to his clients and is obviously going to take whatever the system will give him.”
Our problem is with the judges who are doling out the favors, and more fundamentally with the system enabling such backscratching behavior …
By dispensing preferential treatment to lawyer-legislators – and by extension granting them an unfair competitive advantage over other attorneys in the marketplace – South Carolina judges are subverting the administration of the very justice they are sworn to uphold.
“It is actually worse than people think,” one rural South Carolina solicitor who is intimately familiar with this epidemic told us following the publication of our recent report.
Several other solicitors reached out to us echoing their colleague’s concerns.
According to the solicitor who spoke with us, S.C. chief justice Donald Beatty provides “ABSOLUTE PROTECTION (emphasis original)” to lawyer-legislators from January 1 through July 31, a span of time which actually extends nearly three months after the legislative session ends in May.
And after that, lawyer-legislators “(get) judges to sign protection orders for them from August 1 through December 31,” the solicitor told us.
“It’s a big problem and you’re the first to report on it,” the solicitor told us.
Oh, and like Kelly – Beatty is a former lawmaker.
Which is another big problem.
Prosecutors at the state level have also cited this issue as a growing problem, referring to cases in which lawyer-legislators are able to assist their clients in evading court year-after-year thanks to judges excusing them from appearances.
“Criminals are also aware that Todd Rutherford is excused from court for extended periods and of time and they seek him out exclusively just to have their cases delayed,” one source told us.
(Click to view)
(Via: Travis Bell Photography)
This source pointed to one defendant in particular who allegedly “bragged to others that the reason has not been convicted is because his attorney is a lawmaker and is never in court.”
Again … that is not justice, people. It is a perversion of justice – or more accurately, the institutionalizing of injustice. And it must be stopped … just like the irredeemably incestuous process of lawmakers handpicking judicial candidates and then selecting judges via legislative election.
Or the election of former lawmakers to the judicial branch …
All of these corrosive influences need to be cut out … immediately.
Again: No more legislative selection/ election of judges, no more former lawmakers serving in the judicial branch and no more special favors for lawyer-legislators.
As we noted in our previous post, championing the elimination of preferential treatment for lawyer-legislators does not serve the specific interests of this news outlet. FITSNews’ legal team includes a pair of sitting state lawmakers – and upon occasion in the past these attorneys have availed themselves of the court’s protection in scheduling appearances related to our cases. However, our attorneys did not invoke this immunity during our recently concluded trial – which took place this January while the legislature was in session. Nor have they invoked this protection as it relates to the current case in which we are involved.
And they will not be invoking such protections in the future … per specific written instructions issued this week by our founding editor Will Folks.
If we are to be credible advocates for this desperately needed reform, then we cannot derive any benefit from the very practice we are criticizing.
This issue is simply too important …
WANNA SOUND OFF?
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