In a possible prelude of a forthcoming gubernatorial bid, South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson staked himself out on the issue of judicial reform – and vowed to make the issue a centerpiece of the public debate moving forward.
Wilson took some heat from us a few months ago for offering up tepid proposals aimed at fixing the Palmetto State’s notoriously corrupt judicial branch of government – which is effectively run by a handful of powerful lawyer-legislators in the S.C. General Assembly.
On Monday morning (July 10, 2023) in Charleston, S.C., the 49-year-old prosecutor upped his game – embracing both short-term and long-term reforms aimed at resolving this worsening judicial crisis.
Flanked by S.C. ninth circuit solicitor Scarlett Wilson – a staunch advocate for fairness in our court system – and Dr. Oran Smith of the Palmetto Promise Institute, Wilson told a group of state lawmakers he supported moving the Palmetto State to the “federal model” of judicial selection, hoping to address “an imbalance of power” and deter “legislative abuse.”
South Carolina is one of only two states in America in which lawmakers elect 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 widespread 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.
Changing this system permanently would require an amendment to the constitution … which most agree is unlikely to happen in the coming legislative session.
As he works toward that solution, Wilson proposed a series of short-term reforms to the much-maligned Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC). As noted in our prior coverage, 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.
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Wilson wants to have all ten members of this panel appointed by future governors – or executive branch leaders – while at the same time prohibiting lawyer-legislators from serving on the panel. He also wants to remove an arbitrary cap which limits the number of judicial candidates whose names can be submitted to the legislature for consideration in its elections.
“We currently have an imbalance of power in our judicial system,” Wilson said. “That must change. By letting the governor, or the executive branch, appoint the members to the JMSC and removing the legislators from serving on the JMSC, we can deliver meaningful judicial reform that is truly accountable to the people.”
According to Wilson, “having legislators serve on the JMSC, especially with no involvement from the governor, breeds mistrust and potential for abuse – real or perceived.”
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson pulled no punches in her assessment of the “perceived” abuse of the current method of judicial selection.
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“We’ve all seen some judicial candidates that made it through, and we scratched our head because they shouldn’t have – and we’ve all seen some that should have made it through but did not,” she said. “When I go into court against a lawyer legislator on the other side, I’m going against someone who can hire and fire the judge I’m appearing before. We need to change the make up of the JMSC to ensure one group doesn’t have an advantage and judges aren’t put in an uncomfortable position.”
This issue is obviously very important to me. My news outlet has expended significant bandwidth in recent years demanding reform of South Carolina’s badly broken judicial system – and pushing to hold Palmetto State judges and prosecutors accountable when they fail to uphold their duty to the public.
My proposed solution? A hybrid model in which judges are nominated by governors based upon the recommendations of a reconfigured judicial merit panel – one which would be comprised (among other members) of a sheriff, a police chief, a solicitor, a defense attorney, a family law attorney, a retired judge and (most importantly) a victims’ rights advocate.
Once the governor submitted a nominee, this candidate would receive an up-or-down “advice and consent” vote from the full S.C. General Assembly – with two key caveats: First, any lawmaker practicing law in the Palmetto State would be prohibited from participating in any judicial election. Ever. Second, after booting the lawyers from the room, I would add weight to the votes of state senators based on the fact they represent larger populations than state representatives.
Once a judge is confirmed, the third and most important component of the “hybrid” model would take effect – public accountability. All sitting judges – at every level – would be subjected to petition-based recall elections as well as quadrennial retention elections. Neither the recall nor retention votes would pit them against opponents, mind you … these would simply be “yea” or “nay” votes from the public as to whether the judge kept their seat or not. Assuming the answer was “nay,” the gubernatorial appointment process outlined above would recommence.
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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