A South Carolina state senator has vowed to block further legislative elections of judges until his colleagues pass a judicial reform bill changing how candidates for the bench are chosen.
S.C. senator Wes Climer of Rock Hill confirmed reports on Monday afternoon (October 2, 2023) that he is planning to filibuster legislation scheduling judicial elections during the 2024 legislative session – at least until lawmakers approve changes to a cliquish panel of powerful lawyer-legislators dubbed the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC).
“Absolutely,” Climer told me. “We can’t have judicial elections again without reform.”
Climer indicated he had spoken with several senators eager to back his play.
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.
S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson has been leading a push to reconfigure the SCJMSC. Freshmen lawmakers Joe White of Newberry and Heather Bauer of Columbia have also been building support for the issue within the S.C. House of Representatives. In the State Senate, Dick Harpootlian – who has been battling with Wilson in the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ saga – has emerged as a new ally in the fight after he witnessed the corruption of the process unfold in his backyard.
“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 in a letter two months ago to Senate judiciary chairman Luke Rankin. “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.”
The general consensus? That this commission – and the current rules which govern its deliberations, processes and decisions – must be dramatically reconfigured. Or rather reconstructed. At a bare minimum.
My view? Bigger change is needed … but certainly I don’t want to stop lawmakers from taking these initial actions.
While Climer is intent on holding up all judicial nominations until they do, he did say there would be one exception to his filibuster – the ascension of supreme court justice John W. Kittredge to the top spot on the high court. Kittredge is in line to follow outgoing chief justice Donald Beatty, whose six-and-a-half year tenure at the head of the South Carolina judicial branch has been an unmitigated disaster.
Will Climer’s gambit work?
Filibusters on hot-button issues – especially during election years – can be effective. For example, state senator Tom Davis used a filibuster to block a gas tax hike during the 2016 legislative session. Unfortunately, “Republican” lawmakers sat Davis down the following year – mustering just enough votes to end his filibuster.
It takes a hard twenty-four votes to shut down a filibuster on a bill’s second reading though the chamber. On its third reading, three-fifths of all senators present and voting must vote to sit a senator down (i.e. end the filibuster). There are forty-six seats in the chamber, although two are currently vacant. Both of those seats will be filled by the time lawmaker return to Columbia, S.C. for the 2024 legislative session.
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 (soon to be eight) children.
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