Two bills aimed at reforming the way judges are chosen in South Carolina are gaining significant legislative support – signaling a potential thawing within the S.C. General Assembly as it relates to its stranglehold over this ostensibly independent branch of government.
Last week, we reported on legislation introduced by freshmen lawmakers Heather Bauer of Columbia and Joe White of Newberry. Both Bauer’s bill (H. 4179) and White’s bill (H. 4183) would make significant changes to the current composition of the much-maligned Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC).
For those of you unfamiliar with this entity, the SCJMSC is a 10-member panel controlled by powerful lawyer-legislators. The panel screens judges prior to submitting their names for legislative election – a process rife with corruption and insider deal-making.
South Carolina is one of only two states in America in which the legislature picks judges. As we have seen in far too many cases, lawyer-legislators reap the rewards of their influence over this process by receiving preferential treatment on behalf of their clients. As this news outlet has consistently noted, the current system has enabled institutional corruption, shredded the rights of victims, empowered violent criminals and materially eroded public safety.
It has also turned the judiciary into little more than a political annex of the legislature.
Bauer and White are seeking to change the SCJMSC’s composition by allowing the governor and S.C. Bar Association to make a majority of the appointments to the panel – and by preventing lawyer-legislators from serving on it. Bauer’s bill would take things a step further and preclude any legislator from sitting on the panel.
Both bills would also prohibit the panel from excluding qualified candidates from consideration by lawmakers based on an arbitrary three-person cap on legislative elections. Under both bills, that cap would be removed – meaning all qualified candidates would be considered by legislators.
“All our bill does is guarantee every qualified candidate can run and takes lawmakers out of the screening process,” Bauer told me this week. “I think the bill is picking up steam as members learn that these small changes can dramatically improve transparency in the process.”
Bauer is certainly correct about the “steam.” As of this morning, her bill had 21 sponsors while White’s legislation had attracted 29 sponsors – a significant spike from earlier this month. Those are solid numbers for any bill introduced by first-year lawmakers – let alone legislation which strikes at the very heart of one of the S.C. General Assembly’s power centers.
White credited Bauer and former House minority leader Gilda Cobb-Hunter for their efforts on this issue, along with members of the S.C. Freedom Caucus. He also cited “the attention drawn by news outlets, in particular FITSNews to the unconscionable method used in South Carolina to select judges.”
White further acknowledged the impact of the recent extra-legal release of convicted killer and gang leader Jeroid J. Price. Price is currently on the run from law enforcement after a divided S.C. supreme court voided an order from retired S.C. circuit court judge Casey Manning granting him his freedom last month with more than fifteen years remaining on his “mandatory minimum” sentence.
“The unconstitutional and illegal release of gang leader Price has created momentum for new co-sponsors,” White said. “More than eighteen House members have added their names to one of the bills in the past week.”
Do Bauer and White’s bills go far enough? No, they do not. I have argued repeatedly in support of far more fundamental reform – including a hybrid model of judicial appointment in which the executive branch, legislative branch and the general public all get to participate in the process.
Still, the fact a growing number of lawmakers are going on the record in support of reform is significant – marking the beginning of what I hope will be a culture change within the legislative branch of government that will ultimately lead us toward the substantive, systemic fix South Carolina desperately needs.
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.
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