A day after a South Carolina state senator vowed to block all judicial nominations until lawmakers reformed the notoriously corrupt way they pick judges, powerful S.C. House speaker Murrell Smith announced the formation of a legislative panel aimed at studying this issue.
Smith also claimed his panel would submit a bill for consideration prior to February 2024 – which is when legislators typically hold their elections for judges.
Talk about political timing … times two.
For those of you unfamiliar with its “injustice” system, 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, 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, the current system has enabled institutional corruption, shredded the rights of victims, empowered violent criminals and materially eroded public safety.
While lawmakers have shown zero inclination to give up their power to elect judges, there is momentum to address rampant abuse and corruption amongst a cliquish panel of powerful attorney-lawmakers dubbed the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC).
For those of you unfamiliar with this entity, the SCJMSC is a 10-member panel controlled by lawyer-legislators. The panel screens judges prior to submitting their names for legislative election – a process rife with insider deal-making.
A growing coalition of elected officials – including S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson and freshman state lawmaker Joe White of Newberry – are heeding the calls of law enforcement and prosecutorial leaders and pushing for changes to this panel. Specifically, they want to amend the composition of the SCJMSC so it isn’t controlled by lawyer -legislators – and make changes to its processes which they believe would create enhanced fairness for candidates.
Does such tinkering constitute sufficient reform? Not really. Far bigger, more fundamental change is needed in my estimation … however, as noted earlier this week, “I don’t want to stop lawmakers from taking these initial actions.”
As for Smith’s newly formed “judicial reform study committee,” I am not even remotely optimistic as to its work. In fact, I would caution our audience to expect the bare minimum of “reform” from this panel – which includes several of the lawyer-legislators who have defended the failed status quo.
Smith tapped eight “Republicans” and five Democrats to serve on this committee, which will hold public hearings in the fall and winter and – as previously noted – submit a bill for legislative consideration by February. GOP members include speaker pro tempore Tommy Pope, judiciary chairman Weston Newton and representatives William Bailey, Micah Caskey, Brandon Guffey, Robby Robbins, Anne Thayer and Chris Wooten. Democrats on the panel include Justin Bamberg, Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Russell Ott, Ivory Thigpen and Spencer Wetmore.
Is this a genuine bid to fix a broken system, though? Or is it an effort by those who have systemically exploited that system to pretend they are doing something about it … so they can continue exploiting it.
Seriously, if Smith – himself a lawyer-legislator – was serious about judicial reform he would have made it a priority last legislative session. He would have also used his power as speaker to replace members of the SCJMSC who have habitually abused their positions. Specifically, Smith should have long ago removed powerful S.C. House minority leader Todd Rutherford – the arch-offender on this panel who was at the heart of the illegal, unconstitutional release from prison of a convicted killer and gang leader earlier this year.
More importantly, is it all just reactionary expediency?
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Smith’s move came less than 24 hours after 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.
Given that Climer’s filibuster threat is likely to be backed by a sufficient number of his senatorial colleagues, Smith and his status quo allies were essentially placed in checkmate. Meaning their response is less about “reform” and more about getting ahead of Climer.
Is that principled leadership? No … it’s pathetic politics. Self-serving, circle-jerking, cover-your-ass grandstanding.
Make no mistake: The plague of institutional injustice in South Carolina’s judicial branch of government – the cancer I wrote of earlier this week – will never be done away with by tinkering around the edges of the problem. It will only be done away with by stripping lawmakers of their dominion over the judicial selection process – immediately, totally and permanently.
Don’t expect Smith or his latest clique of insiders to get within a country mile of that sort of reform, sadly.
They just want you to think they’ve done something about the problem … not actually do something about it. Because doing something about it would hit them where it hurts.
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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