Prominent Palmetto State senator Dick Harpootlian has been sparring of late with South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson. The two are still sparring, in fact, over the ‘Murdaugh Murders‘ crime and corruption saga – with another showdown looming in the latest chapter of this still-unspooling drama.
No love is lost between the veteran Democratic lawmaker and the presumptive GOP gubernatorial frontrunner – but there is one issue on which they are increasingly seeing eye-to-eye.
That issue? Judicial selection reform …
Wilson has been pushing this issue for several months now, and Harpootlian jumped on board in a big way back in August. This week, Harpootlian laid down the gauntlet for S.C. Senate judiciary chairman Luke Rankin – a status quo defender who has been unwilling to engage in any substantive discussion of fixing South Carolina’s badly broken system.
For those of you unfamiliar with South Carolina’s inherently unfair “justice” system, the Palmetto State is one of only two states in America in which the legislature picks judges. As we have seen in far too many cases, powerful 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, this method of judicial selection 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.
Before lawmakers get to vote on judges, though, there is another, even more insidious layer of corruption to contend with - the much-maligned S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC).
For those of you unfamiliar with this noxious entity, the SCJMSC is a 10-member panel controlled by powerful lawyer-legislators. It purports to "screen" judges prior to submitting their names for legislative election – a process that is ostensibly based on "merit" but which is instead routinely rife with insider deal-making.
Several bills are being advanced in the S.C. General Assembly to amend the composition of this panel - and the rules by which it operates.
The goal? To keep it from rigging judicial races ahead of time.
Earlier this year, 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 SCJMSC. Attorney general Wilson has detailed his own proposed reforms to the panel.
This week, Harpootlian rolled out his own proposal. In a letter to Rankin sent on Wednesday (October 4, 2023), he included "a draft piece of legislation that I believe addresses most of the major concerns I have encountered."
Harpootlian's bill - which he intends to pre-file prior to the upcoming session - would allow all qualified candidates to appear on a legislative ballot, not just the three qualified candidates chosen by the SCJMSC.
"If ten individuals run for a specific judgeship and all are found qualified, then ten will come out of screening to run and receive a vote by the General Assembly," Harpootlian wrote in his letter (.pdf) to Rankin.
Candidates would also be prohibited from bailing on the process prior to the end of screening. This is another way lawmakers push their preferred choices - by threatening negative reports against their rivals.
"Once a candidate submits their application they will not be allowed to withdraw," he wrote. "This avoids the appearance in the past that some candidates were allowed to withdraw rather than having a negative report."
Harpootlian would also publicize comments and complaints about judges as opposed to the "anonymous process used now." Additionally, his proposal would ban anyone "related by the second degree of affinity or consanguinity to a sitting legislator" from seeking judgeships - thus eliminating a broad swath of familial and marital legislative relations from contention.
Finally, Harpootlian's plan called for a member of the S.C. Bar Association with "at least ten years of experience in either trial or appellate law" to fill a seat on the SCJMSC.
After laying out his policy points, Harpootlian made it clear the clock was ticking - gently chiding Rankin for his failure to take action on the letter he sent him back in August.
"I have asked you to take one of the judicial reform bills currently pending in our committee and appoint a subcommittee to begin taking testimony and crafting a bill to come to the floor as soon as possible in the session," Harpootlian wrote. "Without the immediate appointment of a subcommittee, I believe we will not be able to get judicial reform accomplished this (coming) year."
Harpootlian's proposal - and his challenge to Rankin - comes at a pivotal moment in this debate. Earlier this week, S.C. senator Wes Climer of Rock Hill, S.C. vowed to filibuster any attempt to elect judges under the current system.
“We can’t have judicial elections again without reform.” Climer said.
In response to his threat, powerful S.C. House speaker Murrell Smith announced the formation of a legislative panel aimed at studying this issue. I rebuked Smith's panel as a reactionary move, referring to it as "self-serving, circle-jerking, cover-your-ass grandstanding.”
THE LETTER ...
(Via: S.C. Senate)
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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