In a time when Americans decry the lack of bipartisan cooperation, two freshmen South Carolina legislators from opposite sides of the aisle are teaming up to tackle a common concern: Controversy over the current method of selecting judges in the Palmetto State.
Lawmakers Heather Bauer and Joe White held a joint news conference on Tuesday morning at the South Carolina State House to promote their proposed reforms. Bauer has a bill – H. 4179 – which is currently before the House judiciary committee. Her legislation would bring massive change to the composition of the much-maligned Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC). At last count, eight Democrats had signed on as co-sponsors.
White’s bill – H. 4183 – addresses similar issues regarding the structure of the SCJMSC. So far, more than twenty Republican lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors.
Several fellow lawmakers, crime victims, reform advocates, and other stakeholders joined Bauer and White at their news conference. Also on hand were Newberry County sheriff Lee Foster, S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe and S.C. sixteenth circuit solicitor Kevin Brackett.
Brackett was particular indignant in his remarks from the podium.
“We can’t do our job if the referees are being picked by the criminal defense bar,” Brackett said. “We can’t keep you safe.”
Here is a clip of highlights from the event compiled by our special projects director Dylan Nolan …
(Click to view)
Different parties, different positions and different parts of South Carolina; yet all share one common unifier. They say we are long overdue for an overhaul of the way judicial candidates are presented for election before the S.C. General Assembly.
“There’s so much interest in this because we need a judicial system that does what the last six words in our Pledge of Allegiance say – we need liberty and justice for all,” White explained. “And right now, we don’t have liberty and justice for all. We have liberty and justice decided by lawyers who run the legislature.”
As noted in a previous article, candidates seeking a judgeship must first submit their resumes to the 10-member SCJMSC – which is currently controlled by powerful lawyer-legislators. The S.C. Senate appoints five commission members; the House picks the other five. At the moment, six of the ten members of this panel are currently attorneys serving in the S.C. General Assembly.
Again, that’s like baseball players picking the umpires calling their games. And that, at a bare minimum, creates a potentially serious conflict of interest.
Under the existing rules, the SCJMSC forwards three names for each judicial opening to the legislature for consideration and final selection. Under Bauer and White’s bills, members of this powerful committee would be appointed by the governor, House, Senate, and the S.C. Bar Association.
Both bills would prohibit lawyer-legislators from serving on the SCJMSC, with Bauer’s measure going even further by banning any sitting legislator from becoming a member. There are a handful of other distinctions, but the two proposals share the same guiding principles.
Bauer and White also agree the public needs to become better informed about the flaws in South Carolina’s judicial selection process – which is why Democrats and Republicans are working together.
“It just shows that it’s an issue that when the general public is made aware, they are very much in favor of changing how we do judicial selection in South Carolina,” White said. “The difficulty is in public awareness. Once you tell people that lawyer-legislators run the JMSC and that the lawyer-legislators decide whom the judges will be, everybody with common sense knows you don’t want the referee of a game to be decided by one team. And that’s what’s happening right now.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at [email protected].
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