Last week, I received inordinate amounts of grief on social media – mostly from South Carolina trial lawyers – for putting forward a proposal to popularly elect judges in the Palmetto State. South Carolina is currently one of only two states in the nation (Virginia is the other) in which the state legislature controls both the vetting and election of judges, creating a “favor factory” that affords influential lawyer-legislators all manner of preferential treatment.
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Despite the glaring inefficacy and unfairness of South Carolina’s current system – and the fact 33 states provide some measure of popular involvement in their judicial selection processes – you would think I had proposed to erect a guillotine in the parking lot behind the S.C. supreme court.
I wasn’t surprised by the backlash this proposal received, though. Those who benefit (richly) from the current, corrupt system are obviously going to do everything within their power to preserve and protect that system – and, in the process, curry additional favor from the judges who hold the proverbial sword of Damocles over their heads every time they step into a courtroom.
So yeah, not only do I stand by every word of what I posted last week … I welcome the trial lawyer blowback.
In fact, on cue, the perfect case study of exactly what I am talking about unfolded this week in a Lexington county, S.C. courtroom …. one which could have profound repercussions on the various civil court cases connected to the ever-escalating ‘Murdaugh Murders’ true crime saga.
What sort of case study am I referring to?
Late Tuesday afternoon, powerful S.C. House ways and means chairman Murrell Smith submitted a notice of appearance on behalf of Parker’s Kitchen – a corporate defendant in a high-profile wrongful death case filed by the family of Mallory Beach.
Beach, 19, of Hampton, S.C., was killed in the early morning hours of February 24, 2019. On that fateful morning, a 17-foot, center console fishing boat owned by attorney Alex Murdaugh (the man at the center of the Murdaugh crime saga) and allegedly driven by his late son, Paul Murdaugh – slammed into the piling of a Beaufort county, S.C. bridge at a high rate of speed.
Murdaugh was “drunker than Cooter Brown” at the time of the crash, to quote his late grandfather.
(Click to view)
(Via: Beach Family)
Beach (above) was flung into the dark, cold water following the boat’s impact with the bridge – never to be seen alive again. Her body was found a week later by fishermen more than five miles from the crash site.
Using a driver’s license belonging to his brother, Buster Murdaugh, Paul Murdaugh (who was nineteen years of age at the time) purchased alcoholic beverages at a Parker’s convenience store in Ridgeland, S.C. prior to the fateful crash.
Murdaugh was criminally charged with three counts of boating under the influence in the wake of the incident, although he never stood trial on these charges because he and his mother, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, were savagely murdered on the family’s hunting property on the border of Colleton and Hampton counties three months ago.
While the charges against Paul Murdaugh died with him, there is an ongoing criminal investigation into allegations of obstruction of justice in the aftermath of the boat crash – one reportedly looking at Alex Murdaugh and other members of his family. That inquiry is currently before the S.C. statewide grand jury in Columbia, S.C.
Meanwhile, the civil suit – which lists Parker’s, Greg Parker (the founder of Parker’s), Alex Murdaugh and Buster Murdaugh as defendants – continues to make its way through the Palmetto State’s circuit court system.
Smith, of course, has been working on this case on behalf of Parker’s for some time now. The eleventh-hour announcement of his appearance on behalf of the defendant was a tactical move.
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To his credit, the 53-year-old attorney from Sumter, S.C., capably argued his client’s motion to shift venue in this case from Hampton county to Beaufort county. He even introduced the term “vicinage” (a fancy word referring to vicinity) to an assemblage of attorneys and reporters at the Lexington county courthouse on Wednesday morning.
Smith said it was the first time in his twenty-five-year career as a lawyer he had ever invoked the term.
Still, Smith should have never come within a country mile of this case … and I told him as much Wednesday during a break in the hearing.
“I’m gonna have to take you out for a ride on this one, Mr. Chairman,” I told him.
Smith nodded, as though he understood.
I like Smith. Fifteen years ago, when he was a third-term, back-bench lawmaker in the S.C. House of Representatives, I did some political consulting work for him. Affable, imperturbable and eminently capable in both the courtroom and the corridors of power in Columbia, S.C., Smith has risen through the ranks in the legislature over the last decade-and-a-half – availing himself of an “aw, shucks” genteelness that causes many to underestimate his intellectual capacity and strategic acumen.
Still, he should have left this case well enough alone … and the fact he didn’t perfectly encapsulates the argument I made last week about the notoriously unethical process Smith and his colleagues in the S.C. General Assembly use to select and elect judges.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Smith is no ordinary lawmaker. For the past four years, he has served as chairman of the powerful S.C. House ways and means committee – the panel which gets first crack at the annual $32 billion (and climbing) state budget. And for those of you wondering, yes – the budget Smith’s committee cranks out each year includes funding for the judicial branch of government (which pays judges’ salaries and benefits).
Again, though, Smith isn’t just one of 170 lawmakers voting on a budget … he’s literally one of a handful of people in state government who decides how taxpayer money is doled out. All of it. In other words, he’s on the production side of the fait accompli business, not the consumption end.
(Click to view)
Of course there’s a much bigger conflict of interest in this case as it relates to Smith (above). In addition to the outsized influence he exerts over state spending – which is rivaled only by S.C. Senate finance committee chairman Hugh Leatherman (a lawmaker whose clout is fading along with his health, incidentally) – Smith is the chairman of the über-influential S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC), a panel responsible for determining which judges get to stand for election before the state legislature.
Once again, Smith is much more than just one of 170 lawmakers who gets to vote on judicial candidates (a sufficient conflict of interest if you ask me). More than literally any other lawmaker in the state, he decides which judges get to serve on the bench.
And which ones don’t.
Adding yet another layer of intrigue to this process? S.C. circuit court judge Daniel D. Hall of York, S.C. – who was appointed by chief justice Donald Beatty to preside over the Beach civil suit – is up for reelection in 2022.
How’s that for convenient if you are Parker’s? This judge is being asked to impartially rule on matters in which one of the attorneys arguing before him holds the keys to his future on the bench – mere months before he is to stand for reelection.
And that attorney, it would appear, is not at all shy about turning those keys as he sees fit …
Beatty has granted Hall wide latitude in this case, too. In fact, one of the attorneys for Parker’s who appeared in court this week noted the judge had been granted “exclusive jurisdiction” in this case. Hall is also likely to inherit another civil lawsuit tied to the boat crash case, one in which he will presumably have “exclusive jurisdiction” as well.
That’s a lot of power … and the public must be able to trust this power is being exercised without favor toward one side or the other. Same with any courts responsible for hearing appeals related to this case (of course, Smith appoints those judges, too).
How can they trust this process, though?
(Click to view)
To be clear: I am not questioning Smith’s integrity. Nor am I questioning Hall’s integrity. Other than a few snipes Hall took on Wednesday at Mark Tinsley – the attorney who represents the Beach family – I have seen nothing to suggest he is not acting in a manner consistent with his oath of office.
Of course, Hall has yet to rule on any of the motions filed in this case since Smith was retained to represent Parker’s. So there’s nothing to judge him on … yet.
Still, though … in what universe is this sort of arrangement considered even remotely proper or appropriate?
Oh right … the universe of South Carolina, where uneven justice is the rule rather than the exception, sadly.
Certainly, Smith might decide to recuse himself from any votes involving Hall’s judicial nomination (as he has done in the past with certain nominees) – but such a surface declaration of neutrality ignores the real leveraging of power. It ignores the fact that Hall needs Smith’s influential behind-the-scenes support far more than he needs his lone vote as a member of the legislature.
“One little word shall fell him,” right?
Or … one word will raise him from the dead like Lazarus.
Either way, any decision Hall makes on the law as it relates to this case will be immediately enveloped by a cloud of controversy – even if it were soundly, fairly and justifiably reached.
Speaking of South Carolina’s laws, Greg Parker has been working overtime in recent months to bend them in his favor as the Beach wrongful death case advances. Just three-and-a-half months ago, Parker wined and dined nearly two dozen influential lawmakers at the highbrow Hall’s Chophouse in Columbia, S.C. – a restaurant where the price per head typically runs between $150-200 (prior to the inclusion of a gratuity).
In other words that’s $3,600 to $4,800 … before the tip.
(Click to view)
(Via: Hall’s Chophouse)
Also, just three-and-a-half hours prior to the dinner at Hall’s on June 15, 2021, Parker addressed state lawmakers on the issue of “tort reform,” according to an itinerary provided to this news outlet.
So … did any of the nearly two dozen lawmakers on the receiving end of Parker’s “benevolence” report their dinners to the S.C. State Ethics Commission (SCSEC)?
I bet they are now … although that kind of defeats the whole point of disclosure, doesn’t it? Tell the truth only after you get caught?
In addition to wining and dining lawmakers, Parker has shelled out big bucks for political consulting services in the hopes of steering comprehensive liability reform legislation through the S.C. General Assembly. His preferred bill – H. 3750 – aims to rewrite state law governing “joint and several liability,” dramatically limiting plaintiffs’ ability to recover damages from multiple defendants in connection with cases involving “personal injury, wrongful death, or damage to property.”
To be clear: I am not necessarily opposed to tort reform of this kind. In fact, I have supported versions of such legislation in the past – and my news outlet remains open to publishing divergent views on this and many other issues.
Still, the fact Parker is attempting to ram this bill through the legislature at the same time he is staring down one of the highest profile wrongful death cases in South Carolina history is by no means a coincidence. And while Smith is not among the initial cosponsors of H. 3750 – which currently resides in the S.C. House judiciary committee – he now finds himself working for the man pushing the law, meaning his influence on Parker’s behalf could soon seep out of the courtroom and into the cloakrooms at the S.C. State House.
Is such “pay-to-play” legislative action any more or less ethical than purchasing influence with the judiciary?
Because if that isn’t what is happening here, it sure as hell looks like what is happening … which is the problem.
“As we’re witnessing the crumbling of the good ol’ boy system in real-time in Hampton county – and the international spotlight is on our state’s judicial system – Parker’s is trying to pull a classic ole boy move,” one Lowcountry scribe told me this week, referring to the fall of the House of Murdaugh.
Indeed it Is … which is precisely why radical measures must be undertaken now to wrestle this awesome power out of the hands of lawmakers and put it where it belongs, in the hands of the people. Once again, lawmakers have clearly shown they cannot be trusted with it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that San Diego Padres’ lid pictured above).
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