The ad hoc legislative committee tasked by powerful South Carolina speaker Murrell Smith with crafting a judicial reform bill met for the third time this week. Unlike previous meetings, though, this one was tightly scripted and carefully stage-managed – presumably in response to the speaker’s displeasure with the way the first two hearings unfolded.
In a word? It was a good ol’ fashioned, good ol’ boy “whitewash.”
As our media outlet previously reported, Smith is said to have privately called out two legislative leaders – speaker pro tempore Tommy Pope and judiciary committee chairman Weston Newton – for failing to provide him with adequate cover during the first two hearings. They did not make that mistake this go-round. In fact, on several occasions during Wednesday’s hearing, Pope referred to having received “orders from the top” regarding the ad hoc panel’s deliberations moving forward.
(Click to view)
Among those orders? Keeping solicitors David Pascoe and Kevin Brackett – two staunch proponents of judicial reform – from making any further remarks to the panel. Oh, and getting lawmakers on the committee – most notably lawyer-legislators Micah Caskey and Robby Robbins – to offer full-throated defenses of the failed status quo GOP leaders seem hellbent on preserving.
In prefacing a litany of lengthy opening monologues from lawmakers, Pope instructed them to ask only “rhetorical questions” – a move expressly intended to prevent Pascoe and Brackett from responding to specific inquiries.
“People were clearly upset by some of the things we said which I don’t understand because we were specifically asked to come and provide examples,” Brackett told me.
“The fact they invited us back to answer questions, but got instructions from up above not to let us speak unfortunately gives me pause about this process,” Pascoe added.
With Pascoe and Brackett duly muzzled, multiple pro-status quo lawmakers – led by Caskey and Robbins – assailed the two prosecutors as well as the media outlets which have been covering this debate.
Caskey specifically decried media coverage of allegations made by Pascoe during a previous hearing. Those allegations revolved around former S.C. circuit court judge Kristi Harrington – who was forced to resign six years ago during a kangaroo court appearance before the scandal-scarred S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC).
The SCJMSC is the panel which screens judges prior to their election by lawmakers. It is dominated by lawyer-legislators, and has been accused of rigging these elections in years past.
In Harrington’s place, lawmakers installed Bentley Price – who soon became known as the “poster judge” for showing excessive leniency to violent offenders in South Carolina. Price has since been deemed unqualified by SCJMSC members after extensive media coverage of his controversial rulings.
Harrington’s ouster was allegedly aided and abetted by former S.C. supreme court disciplinary counsel John S. Nichols, who offered conflicting testimony on Wednesday about his role in the controversy. After initially saying he attended Harrington’s hearing of his own volition, Nichols spoke of “the chairman having me come,” presumably as a method of intimidating the judge into resigning.
Under questioning from Caskey, the former judicial branch leader attempted to “clarify” his prior remark – stating he was not instructed by S.C. senate judiciary chairman Luke Rankin to attend Harrington’s hearing, but that Rankin did ask him to move to the front row of the gallery in an apparent attempt to intimidate the judge.
Nichols said he has apologized to Harrington for the alleged intimidation, but he disputed Pascoe’s assertion that he had apologized to her on multiple occasions.
“I never said that every time I see her I apologize,” he said.
(Click to view)
Harrington declined to comment on Nichols’ alleged intimidation playing a role in her decision to step down.
“I’m over it,” she told our outlet.
While the Harrington drama dominated much of the hearing, several lawmakers argued the finer points of reform – with most on the panel agreeing some change to the current method of judicial selection was needed due to public “perception.”
State representative Russell Ott, who isn’t an attorney, diverged from the discussion of the prior meeting’s testimony, saying his “biggest fear is that we are were teetering on the edge of missing out on a very great opportunity to do something substantial for the state of South Carolina.”
Ott said he believed some on the panel were making “things more difficult than they actually need to be” in an effort to muddy the conversation. Keeping it simple, he sought to establish a shared baseline assessment of the current state of South Carolina’s judicial system, arguing “the potential for manipulation exists through the screening commission, can we all agree on that?”
“If we can agree that the potential for manipulation exists through the judicial merit screening system or commission, then it’s incumbent upon us to try to remove that potential manipulation to the extent possible,” Ott noted.
Robbins disagreed, insisting there was no issue with the state’s current judicial selection method – only with “perception.”
“The perception is that we have a problem,” he said. “I’m not sure the reality squares with that.”
Robbins proceeded to say he would “defend lawyer-legislators on the JMSC all day long,” saying they were “as talented as anyone I know in the judicial profession.”
(Click to view)
Robbins then fundamentally mischaracterized the origins of the state’s constitution.
“We had tyranny in England, and our founding fathers as a country and our founding fathers as a state recognized that and they put the power in the people,” he said. “There are 170 members of the General Assembly that represent the people of South Carolina and they represent every corner of this state. And that is the best way to make sure that the people control the government. So you need to recognize up front that we have a legislative state it is the power of the state constitution has is vested in the legislature.”
The truth? South Carolina’s constitution was drafted in 1895 at the end of Reconstruction, and its establishment of a legislative state had absolutely nothing to do with England. As this media outlet has often noted, its authors traded the balance of powers seen in many state constitutions for legislative domination because they wanted to ensure black voters wouldn’t be able to exercise any real power in the event they elected black executive branch leaders.
Speaking of black leaders, the conscious of this panel was state representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, one of the earliest legislative proponents of judicial selection reform.
“I don’t see how we can sit here with a straight face and say that we don’t think there’s (lawyer-legislator) influence over this system,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I know my colleagues don’t appreciate me saying that but that’s too bad.”
Cobb-Hunter urged her colleagues to “stop being so territorial” and “stop being so defensive.”
She also praised solicitor Pascoe – who represents her home county – for having “the courage to confront the problem.”
(Click to view)
Pascoe told me he agreed with “90 to 95 percent of everything the committee members other than Micah Caskey said today.”
“I take a lot of issue with representative Caskey’s comments,” he said. “He made some misstatements and even attacked the press in his defense of the JMSC. (The) problem for him is that the press has done a great job covering this issue. However, I did have a very good conversation with him during a break and we’ve agreed to sit down and discuss our differences of opinion one-on-one. I look forward to that sit down.”
Victims who attended the hearing were thoroughly unimpressed by what they witnessed.
“Most everyone has tunnel vision about the JMSC selection process, (believing) that nothing is wrong,” said Lori Williams. “Most seem blind to acknowledging the inappropriate actions of a member of the JMSC and the influence of judges.”
Williams’ brother, Larry Vaughn, was a retired Rock Hill, S.C. police lieutenant who was beaten to death in the summer of 2021. His accused murderer, former Chester County sheriff’s deputy Evan Hawthorne, was controversially released on bond a year ago after powerful lawyer-legislator Todd Rutherford manipulated the docket to ensure his client appeared before the “right” judge.
News of the scandal was exclusively reported by this media outlet back in April.
“Their lack of concern over the perception by the public only makes me feel like there are more issues they are sweeping under the rug,” Williams added. “My perception is reality. Victims aren’t crybabies, we want justice for our loved ones – not favors being exchanged.”
As for her preferred solution, Williams argued “there shouldn’t be any lawyer legislators on the JMSC, criminal, civil, otherwise. Level the field.”
As I noted yesterday, numerous reform proposals are being bandied about by lawmakers, executive branch leaders and local solicitors. I’ve also laid out my own reform proposal – although what I envision would require a change to the aforementioned South Carolina constitution. Some say that is a bridge too far, but as I noted earlier this year “in doing battle against this failed, corrupt system, I do not believe there is any room (or any time) for half-measures.”
Also, if the corrupt system is going to resist even the slightest change … why not shoot for something that will actually fix the problem?
Stay tuned for further reports from Wednesday’s hearing … including commentary on testimony from S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) chief Mark Keel and veteran Palmetto State defense attorney Jack Swerling.
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 and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.