South Carolina senators are reportedly planning to advance a judicial “reform” bill to the floor of their chamber within the month – although it’s unclear whether the proposal will amount to anything resembling a significant shift in the way judges are chosen in the Palmetto State.
After months of delay on the issue, senators finally took up judicial reform on Tuesday – meeting at the subcommittee level to consider various pieces of legislation. Unfortunately these bills, individually and collectively, appear to do little more than tinker around the edges of this growing problem.
To recap: 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.
As this media outlet has meticulously documented over the years, 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.
The only reason they are addressing the issue now? One courageous lawmaker stood up and said “enough is enough.” S.C. senator Wes Climer‘s vow to filibuster judicial elections unless a reform bill was passed is what has lawmakers scrambling … but will they do anything of substance?
Or push more “reform in name only?”
(Click to view)
According to sources familiar with the status of negotiations, there is general agreement among Senate leaders – including judiciary chairman Luke Rankin – to enact modest changes to the Palmetto State’s scandal-scarred Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC).
Among those “reforms?”
- Lawyer-legislators would not be allowed to serve on the JMSC
This provision is intended to curb the influence of attorney-politicians during the screening process, although these lawyer-legislators would still be allowed to vote on judicial candidates once their names are sent to the General Assembly.
- Every judicial candidate found qualified by the JMSC would receive a vote.
Under the current structure, only three candidates for each judicial seat are advanced to the legislature. This three-candidate limit is routinely used to rig races.
- Anonymous complaints against judges would not be permitted.
This is an effort to prevent lawmakers from threatening judges or judicial candidates during the screening process by using anonymous allegations.
- Campaigning for judicial offices on the grounds of the S.C. State House would be forbidden.
This is an attempt to preserve the integrity of the selection process and prevent judges and judicial candidates from demeaning themselves as they solicit legislative support.
Do the reforms articulated above constitute meaningful change? No, not really …
Even if a bill containing all of these measures were to become law, the S.C. General Assembly would retain exclusive control over the selection of judges.
What does real reform look like? To me, it means reducing the legislature’s role to one of advice and consent … and giving the executive branch the power to appoint (and the people the power to remove) judges.
I’ve previously 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.
Ultimately, though, I care less about the specific structural change and more about the outcomes it engenders. Simple or systemic, it is the outcomes which matter. Which reminds me: I am not naïve enough to think even the most aggressive changes to the current structure will succeed absent ongoing vigilance over the entire process.
My outlet intends to continue providing that vigilance as it pushes lawmakers to embrace more substantive reform proposals …
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.