For several years, my news outlet has been a broken record when it comes to the ongoing problem of excessive judicial leniency in South Carolina. Just last week, in fact, I published another report on this ongoing scourge – which continues to compromise justice, trample on the rights of victims and materially erode public safety in the Palmetto State (and beyond).
We are looking at a total system failure, people … and what’s worse, there is absolutely zero appetite within the S.C. General Assembly to do anything about it.
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For those of you unfamiliar with how “justice” operates in South Carolina, a legislatively controlled panel picks which judicial candidates are “qualified” and then submits these names to the legislature for a vote. Not surprisingly, these judges are beholden to the legislature – particularly powerful lawyer-legislators who routinely have cases before them (and who routinely abuse their privilege on behalf of their, um, “clients“).
Law enforcement leaders have begun taking state lawmakers to task for their habitual failure to appoint judges willing to hold violent criminals accountable.
Still, nothing changes …
“Seriously … how many more bodies will it take before someone stands up and does something?” I wrote last week.
In a video addendum to this article (also published last week), I made it abundantly clear I believe this is a hill worth dying on … because people are dying.
“People are dying because judges in South Carolina refuse to do the one thing that above anything else they ought to be doing,” I said.
And lest we err in apportioning all of the blame for this ongoing travesty on the “woke” judges setting these violent criminals free, let’s not forget the “Republican-controlled” legislature in South Carolina – which is singularly responsible for appointing all of them to their posts.
“I’m not going to stop until we fix this problem and I’m not going to stop until we get lawmakers in Columbia who are going to appoint judges who will do their damned job,” I noted.
Alternatively, I won’t stop until lawmakers are stripped of this authority and the people of the Palmetto State are empowered to choose their judges (or at the very least, have some say in the process).
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South Carolina’s “justice” problems extend beyond the generous bonds and soft sentences these judges dole out, though. Aside from the leniency issue, there is an underlying laziness – namely the ongoing failure of these judges to expeditiously move cases through their dockets in a manner serving the interests of justice, victims and public safety.
This week, the complete and total lack of legislative accountability over the judicial branch was made abundantly clear when a slate of nominees was presented to a joint session of the S.C. General Assembly that included zero contested races.
Wait … what?
That’s right … from the left-leaning S.C. supreme court all the way down to family court judgeships, not a single one of the nearly two dozen judicial posts being filled this week involved a choice.
In fact, nearly every judicial “election” features an incumbent judge running unopposed.
In fairness, three races were contested when the slate of “qualified” judges (.pdf) was first issued back in November by the legislatively controlled S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC) but candidates in those races dropped out.
Which means lawmakers have no options when it comes to replacing bad judges …
Lawmakers were supposed to get serious about judicial reform in 2022 after Upstate businessman John Warren embarrassed them in a February 2021 judicial race – shaming them into blocking the elevation of a liberal circuit court judge to a spot on the S.C. court of appeals.
Things were going to change, I was told … but a year later, nothing.
Like the rest of their “conservatism,” it’s all talk …
One judge in particular who should have been voted out this year is S.C. circuit court judge Daniel Hall – who made statewide news last fall when he was tapped to handle a high-profile civil trial involving the now-notorious Murdaugh family of Hampton, S.C.
Hall has a long history of excessive leniency. In 2015, he gave a drug-addled woman who buried her newborn baby in her backyard a probationary sentence – and then kept her out of jail when she violated that probation. In 2017, he doled out another probationary sentence to a woman following a fatal hit-and-run which left an 11-year-old boy dead (the child was mowed down after he pushed his younger sister out of the path of the oncoming car). In 2018, a peeping tom who installed cameras in a bathroom to watch women shower and use the restroom also got probation – even though prosecutors and victims argued he should have faced jail time. And more recently, on January 8, 2020, Hall reinstated the bond of 42-year-old Paul Patrick Johnson Sr. on a felony domestic violence charge – even though he twice violated a magistrate’s order against contacting his victim.
Three months later, Johnson murdered his wife and their five-year-old son before turning his gun on himself.
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“Judge Hall’s leniency is well-documented and uniformly disparaged by law enforcement officers and prosecutors in South Carolina,” Hudson noted.
Hudson is correct. In 2017 a former sheriff in Union County told a local television station that “the inmates in my jail know when he’s coming and they line up to plead guilty in front of him because they know he’s going to give light sentences.”
Last November, S.C. sixteenth circuit solicitor Kevin Brackett submitted a lengthy affidavit to the SCJMSC questioning Hall’s fitness to remain in office.
“He is inherently biased against the state and our position in court,” Brackett wrote in his affidavit (.pdf). “I also believe he is biased against law enforcement in general. He has deeply held beliefs on many issues related to criminal justice and allows these beliefs to influence his decision making even if the beliefs are at odds with the law or concern a policy decision that is entirely within our discretion. Further, should you disagree with his beliefs and advocate contrary to those beliefs, he is liable to treat you harshly. He openly criticizes, berates and belittles members of my staff who advocate for positions he does not agree with.”
Brackett went on to say Hall “attempts to supersede the legitimate, discretionary decisions of the state’s representatives and bully and intimidate the prosecution to chill their advocacy on behalf of the people.”
Astoundingly, the legislators on the SCJMSC dismissed all of these concerns – saying they did “not find a failing” on Hall’s part and were “satisfied with both his written response to the complaints and his testimony during the public hearing.”
As a result, they approved his nomination for another term – while simultaneously rejecting the candidacy of an eminently qualified attorney who had hoped to run against him.
Again … nothing changes. The system remains broken. Justice continues to be denied. Public safety continues to be ignored. And the only method in place for changing any of it remains totally rigged – with powerful lawyer-legislators like Luke Rankin continuing to exert their influence on behalf of judges like Hall.
If I have said it once, I have said it a million times: Enough is enough. It is time to tear down this rotten edifice and start over from scratch.
Sadly, “Republicans” running the S.C. General Assembly refuse to lift a finger. In fact, they continue to reelect the same judges over and over …
Seriously: How many more people have to die before we hold them accountable?
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 Chicago Blackhawks’ lid pictured above).
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