State House

South Carolina Senate Panel Holds First Judicial Reform Meeting

Senators finally address “perceived” problem with Palmetto State judiciary …

Years after the issue first began generating widespread public outrage – and months after leaders in the South Carolina House of Representatives began tentatively discussing their version of “reform” – members of the Palmetto State Senate finally got around to discussing the corrupt method by which lawmakers choose judges.

Astoundingly, several senators still refuse to accept there is a problem …

“We have the best form (of judicial selection),” said state senator Chip Campsen, a member of the subcommittee tasked with hearing the proposals.

Campsen – a staunch defender of the status quo – referred to South Carolina’s scandal-scarred Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC) as “the nation’s best advice and consent model.”

He later acknowledged this “best” system had produced mixed results, however.

“We get some good judges but we get some that are questionable as well,” he admitted.

State senator Gerald Malloy – one of the most influential lawyer-legislators in the S.C. General Assembly – also questioned whether lawmakers needed to change their current system, referring to the flood of recent scandals as a “perceived problem” linked to individuals displeased with the results of their cases.

“What are we trying to fix? What is broken?” Malloy asked. “What is the problem? We have to decide if this is a process problem or an individual person problem.”

“I don’t want to spend all this time fixing a problem that’s (just) perceived,” Malloy continued.

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For those of you unfamiliar with South Carolina’s badly broken judicial selection model, South Carolina is one of only two states in America in which lawmakers picks judges – a process led by a shady screening committee  dominated by a handful of powerful lawyer-legislators.

These political attorneys routinely reap the rewards of their influence over this process – receiving preferential treatment on behalf of their clients at the expense of judicial integrity.

This inherently unfair 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 – a problem which is getting worse, not better.

Have lawmakers delivered on their promise to fix this corruption? No. In fact, this year has been among the worst on record. In addition to engaging in more of the same corrupt insider dealmaking, legislative leaders are currently working overtime to shut down the reform movement by engaging in an institutional whitewash of the current system.

Oh, and silencing anyone who opposes them …

Four months ago, state senator Dick Harpootlian challenged the chairman of the S.C. Senate judiciary committee – Luke Rankin – to convene a subcommittee for the purpose of hearing bills aimed at reforming the Palmetto State’s badly broken judicial branch. He finally got around to it last week, scheduling the subcommittee hearing which took place on Tuesday (February 6, 2024).

A total of sixteen bills were assigned to the subcommittee, precisely none of which received a vote. Instead, lawmakers engaged in a two-hour discussion which included only a handful of voices challenging the current system.

(Click to view)

South Carolina senator Dick Harpootlian. (Gavin McIntyre/ Pool)

State senator Mia McLeod – an independent from Richland County – addressed the subcommittee about what

“I’ve seen lawyer-legislators intimidate candidates,” McLeod said. “I have a real problem with that.”

Addressing her two bills, McLeod said her hope was “to bring some semblance of fairness and integrity back to the process.”

Harpootlian said he agreed with McLeod “wholeheartedly” – arguing the current system “lacks transparency to the point my constituents believe the fix is in.”

His constituents are correct …

“We’re picking the people who are supposed to uphold due process – and we’re violating due process,” Harpootlian said. “We are denigrating the third branch of government and fostering a distrust in that branch of government.”

As previously noted, Harpootlian jumped on board the judicial reform bandwagon in a big way last August – and has been pressuring Rankin to move on the issue ever since.

Testifying before the panel on Tuesday? Former S.C. chief justice Jean Toal – who recently presided over convicted killer Alex Murdaugh‘s bid for a new trial. Toal told the panel she supported the current method of judicial selection – and specifically rejected calls for public elections.

“These public elections – millions and millions of dollars are spent on a court that is supposed to be impervious to any financial pressure,” she said.

Questioned whether or not the current system could be tweaked to minimize “undue pressure” from lawyer-legislators, Toal demurred.

“I don’t think there’s a magic solution to that,” she said. “I think the commission can do a lot in its own process … to what lines (lawyer-legislators) draw in terms of not trying to use their position to unduly impact how that judge rules. I think self-regulation – by the commission itself – is the way to go there. And y’all do that very well.”

Toal did acknowledge some areas in which “public confidence” in the judiciary had been called into question and noted lawmakers were “looking at some new ways to bring about a vetting process that has public confidence.”

Where does this process go from here?

Scott Talley – the chairman of the Senate subcommittee – indicated the sixteen bills presented to his panel would likely be condensed into one specific proposal.

“There’s some overlap in several of them.” Talley said, stating he wanted to “see if we can come up with a working document so we’re not dealing with multiple pieces of legislation – if that’s possible.”

As I noted last week, the recent sense of urgency on judicial reform has been sparked by filibuster threats from conservative lawmakers in the S.C. Senate – notably senator Wes Climer of Rock Hill. Back in October, Climer vowed to block judicial elections unless and until lawmakers fixed the current corrupt system.

“We can’t have judicial elections again without reform,” Climer told me at the time.

Last month, Climer made good on that promise – forcing House members to put off judicial elections which were originally scheduled to be held this week.

My media outlet has led the charge on judicial reform, and last week I challenged lawmakers not to “squander their opportunity to achieve real, lasting change.”

I laid out what I believe to be the ideal solution – a hybrid model in which judges would be nominated by the governor with the advice and consent of the legislature. From there, they would be subjected to recall and retention elections if they wanted to keep their seats.

Lawmakers have made it clear such reform is too much of a “heavy lift” for them, unfortunately…

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

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.

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