The scandal-scarred South Carolina Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC) has once again begun its annual process of screening judicial candidates. As our audience is well aware, FITSNews has long reported on how the SCJMSC’s domination by state lawmakers – specifically a clique of powerful lawyer-legislators – erodes the Palmetto State’s separation of powers and creates a judiciary beholden to the legislature. We have also long reported on the chronic abuses of power this perverse incentive structure invites.
For years, our coverage fell on deaf ears at the S.C. State House – but no longer.
Multiple state lawmakers – led by freshman Joe White of Newberry – filed judicial reform bills last legislative session, bills which yielded immediate internal blowback from leaders of both political parties. Legislative leaders who have spent years grinding their way up the political ladder weren’t about to abdicate their powerful positions just because some conscientious back-benchers pointed out the obvious – that South Carolina is one of two states in America where the legislature appoints judges.
And that this incestuous system is failing the people of the Palmetto State …
For months, it seemed as though these reform bills – and any accompanying hopes for real reform – were deader than doornails as powerful lawyer-legislators refused to co-sponsor them or advance them through the legislature.
Things began to change when executive branch heavyweights jumped into the fray. Attorney general Alan Wilson convened a press conference in March along with many of the state’s independently elected solicitors and sheriffs – but at that point there was still insufficient public pressure being brought to bear on the problem.
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Everything changed on the morning of April 17, 2023, when this media outlet published an exclusive report on the illegal, unconstitutional release from prison of convicted killer/ gang leader Jeroid J Price.
The Price story shattered the status quo’s grip over this process … fundamentally reorienting the entire debate.
To recap: Price was secretly freed from prison fifteen years early after SCJMSC member Todd Rutherford conspired with solicitor Byron Gipson and now retired circuit court judge Casey Manning to secure his release.
After an emergency supreme court hearing determined Price’s release was indeed illegal, he was ordered back into the custody of the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC). By that time, though, Price had already fled the state – and a manhunt ensued. The publicity surrounding the circumstances of Price’s release – and the manhunt – exposed many members of the public to the endemic corruption that’s all too common in South Carolina’s court system.
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White and other lawmakers seized upon this momentum, holding a press conference with the parents of the man Price murdered. Along with freshman lawmaker Heather Bauer, veteran democratic lawmaker Gilda Cobb-Hunter also lent her support to the reform movement.
Bipartisan cooperation extended to the S.C. Senate, too.
Senators Dick Harpootlian and Wes Climer, in particular, put their political capital on the line – which in turn forced House leaders to start taking the issue more seriously. Harpootlian proposed multiple important reforms in a letter sent to S.C. Senate judiciary chairman Luke Rankin. Harpootlian – himself a lawyer-legislator – nonetheless suggested neutering the ability of the ten-person SCJMSC to effectively pick the state’s judiciary. Specifically, he asked that all candidates deemed qualified by the panel be voted on by the S.C. General Assembly – and that candidates be prevented from removing themselves from consideration once they submit their application.
According to Harpootlian, candidates who lack the support of powerful lawyer-legislators are often threatened with being found unqualified – thus ensuring the panel’s preferred candidate is the only one who proceeds through the process.
Climer had seen enough of this vote-rigging, and vowed to filibuster any attempt to elect judges under the current system.
Within a day of Climer’s threat, powerful House speaker Murrell Smith announced the creation of a judicial reform study committee, which he tasked with producing a reform bill no later than February 2024. Given the convenient timing of this announcement, FITSNews founding editor Will Folks called the move “self-serving, circle-jerking, cover-your-ass grandstanding.”
Sources have since confirmed Smith’s panel was actually in the works for some time, but the optics of its announcement were certainly less-than-ideal.
The committee, which met this week, quickly proved Folks’ assessment prescient. In convening the gathering, SCJMSC chairman and study committee member Micah Caskey took a swipe at “some elected officials and bloggers” who have been vocal about the need for change not attending the meeting in person.
Caskey also accused this media outlet of “pay-to-play” on the issue of judicial reform – a charge Folks is apparently quite eager to address under oath.
While the study committee is comprised of several lawmakers whom this news outlet believes will be genuine advocates for worthwhile reform, leadership’s seeding of the committee with members dedicated to preserving the status quo – like Caskey – strongly suggests there is only a superficial desire for change.
“Change in name only,” if you will.
FITSNews has attended – and will continue to attend – SCJMSC’s public hearings, and will provided continued coverage of the House’s attempt to formulate a reform bill. In fact, stay tuned for additional coverage of both of these important judicial reform tracks in the days and weeks to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
(Via: Coleman Rojhan)
Dylan Nolan is the director of special projects at FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore school of business in 2021 with an accounting degree. Dylan primarily covers education when he isn’t producing video content. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.
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