A veteran Midlands, South Carolina judge who appears to have been targeted for vengeance by a powerful state senator was formally removed from office this week. But the meeting which booted him from office was held illegally – and would have likely been declared an illegal meeting had it not been for the alleged cowardice of a newly installed circuit court judge.
We reported last week on the saga of Richland County master-in-equity Joseph M. Strickland, who has held this post since 1989 and was scheduled to continue serving until the end of his most recent six-year term in April of 2027. Strickland has been targeted for ouster by S.C. senator John Scott Jr. and his allies on the county legislative delegation – a group of sixteen mostly Democratic lawmakers who choose who gets to serve in this position.
Earlier this year, state representative Leon Howard – chairman of the Richland delegation and one of Scott’s allies – unilaterally removed the judge without a vote of the delegation. And, in fact, without notification to multiple delegation members. According to a legal motion (.pdf) filed by Strickland, Scott’s animus toward the veteran judge was fueled by the fact his son – John Scott III – was forced to resign from a position he held in Strickland’s office due to several instances of alleged theft.
“Law enforcement discovered that the son had stolen property throughout the Richland County courthouse,” the motion alleged. “When judge Strickland learned of this pattern from the Richland County sheriff’s department, the son was allowed to resign in lieu of termination.”
As I noted in our original treatment of this saga, this raises a ton of red flags.
“If deputies discovered theft from the taxpayers – Scott’s son should have been arrested on the spot,” I wrote at the time. “And Strickland should have fired his ass on the spot.“
As of this writing, though, no charges have been filed against the senator’s son.
With Strickland challenging Howard’s legal authority to remove him unilaterally – without a vote of the delegation – the chairman called an “emergency” meeting of Richland County lawmakers on Wednesday (August 2, 2023) to deal with the matter officially.
The result of that “emergency” meeting? Strickland was voted out …
There’s a problem, though. According to multiple delegation members, Howard failed to provide written, twenty-four hour notice of this meeting as required by state law. That would make the gathering in violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws – specifically S.C. Code § 30-4-80.
“An agenda for regularly scheduled or special meetings must be posted on a bulletin board in a publicly accessible place at the office or meeting place of the public body and on a public website maintained by the body, if any, at least twenty-four hours prior to such meetings,” the code noted. “All public bodies must post on such bulletin board or website, if any, public notice for any called, special, or rescheduled meetings. Such notice must include the agenda, date, time, and place of the meeting, and must be posted as early as is practicable but not later than twenty-four hours before the meeting.”
While the law allows an exemption for true “emergency” meetings, public bodies have typically only cited that loophole during natural disasters.
Is a state senator’s bid to remove a judge who caught his son allegedly stealing from taxpayers really an “emergency?”
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A hearing to determine the legality of the “emergency” delegation meeting – and to potentially block it from being held – was sought on Wednesday morning by Strickland’s attorneys in front of newly elected S.C. circuit court judge Daniel M. Coble. Unfortunately, Coble – whose candidacy for the bench was endorsed by the same lawmakers seeking Strickland’s ouster – refused to hear the motion.
According to our sources, Coble “hid in his office” until the delegation meeting had begun – thus making moot the question Strickland’s lawyers sought to address.
“Total bitch move,” one assistant prosecutor following the drama told us. “Another judge doing the bidding of the legislature as opposed to doing his job.”
So to recap: A clique of corrupt lawmakers holding a grudge against a judge has now illegally removed him from office – twice. Meanwhile, another judge – one who is in their pocket – had a chance to stop them from breaking the law and refused.
And this is the system of “justice” lawmakers continue to defend?
As I noted in our previous coverage of this story, this “unspooling debacle is yet another example of why Palmetto State lawmakers should not be within a country mile of the judicial selection process.”
“Certainly, they should have zero authority over the process beyond the standard advice-and-consent incorporated in the federal model of judicial selection,” I noted.
But just as this news outlet is not the only voice for judicial reform anymore, I am not the only one demanding judicial selection reform in the aftermath of the dust-up.
(Click to view)
Powerful state senator Dick Harpootlian – a member of the Richland delegation – submitted a letter (.pdf) yesterday afternoon in the aftermath of the fiasco to S.C. Senate judiciary chairman Luke Rankin. In that letter, Harpootlian called on Rankin to hold hearings into reforming the state’s notoriously corrupt S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission – the panel which screens judges prior to their election within the S.C. General Assembly.
“It has become increasingly clear to me that we need to pass legislation to reform the current process of selecting judges in the state of South Carolina,” Harpootlian wrote. “Currently, there are five bills pending in the Senate judiciary committee concerning the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. I believe we need a subcommittee to review these bills and refer proposed legislation to the full committee.”
Harpootlian also got into a shouting match with S.C. House minority leader Todd Rutherford, an architect and staunch defender of the current, corrupt system of judicial selection … as well as one of its prime beneficiaries.
Take a look …
Harpootlian wasn’t the only one sounding the alarm about the rampant corruption of the current system. S.C. senator Mia McLeod – an independent from Richland County – blasted the delegation for its part in the judicial selection debacle.
“(This) shit show was just another reminder – and definitely one more GOOD reason for us to stop letting lawyer-legislators continue to cherry-pick judges they like and can control,” McLeod told me.
McLeod – one of five female senators who has long been lauded as possessing more testicular fortitude than any man in the chamber – also criticized governor Henry McMaster for going along with the delegation on its extra-legal judicial appointments.
“This is – and always has been – the way the delegation conducts business,” McLeod added. “Sadly, he gives in to their shenanigans.”
How to unravel this disaster?
Second, Richland County lawmakers need to try holding legal meetings for a change.
Third, and most importantly, South Carolina’s increasingly corrupt method of judicial screening and selection must be eliminated immediately and replaced with a process the public can trust. Clearly, trusting the legislature to do the job isn’t working.
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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