State House

South Carolina Senate Expected To Advance Judicial ‘Reform’ Bill

Will it constitute meaningful change? Or be another example of ‘reform in name only?’

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.

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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)

Sen. Luke Rankin, left, and Sen. Wes Climer are seen during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in Columbia, S.C. (Travis Bell/STATEHOUSE CAROLINA)

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?”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 …

BANNER: Travis Bell Columbia SC Photographers

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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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1 comment

SubZeroIQ February 12, 2024 at 1:06 pm

Since no one else commented, you probably would let through this comment of mine which shows your hypocrisy.
You probably believe that no clicks are bad clicks and that, because I am always so darn interesting, my comments engender at least some clicks and induct you and your underlings into INTELLECTUAL high society.
First, your continuing hypocrisy: Pete Strom, who represents you pro bono in return for your promoting his civil lawsuits against all manner of gyms and even prisons, and who is white, has EQUAL POWER on SC JMSC to Todd Rutherford, whom you hate because he is black.
But you say NOTHING about “powerful private lawyers” sitting on South Carolina’s “SC” Judicial Merit Selection Commission (“JMSC”).
Second, in NO parliament IN THE WORLD is it proper to bar a duly-elected representative from a parliamentary committee BASED SOLELY on that representative’s chosen profession and/or avocation.
When you have a legislature of working citizens, there must be equality regardless of the legislator’s business in non-session times.
Third, the real power behind the throne are the “citizens'” committees which are laden with private lawyers WITH NO TERM LIMITS. You never looked into the checkered William Tetterton of Camden, SC, the permanent chair of the Midlands Citizens Screening Committee.
You never did and never would address those.
Fourth, no anonymous complaints against judges are allowed in SC, whether to SC JMSC or to SC’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel (“ODC”).
The problem is the other way: SC JMSC staff make it very difficult for people to file complaints against judicial candidates, require expensive paper exhibits from complainers (even though the process is otherwise done entirely by e-mail and digitally, arbitrarily dismiss serious complaints while letting through complaints from disgruntled inarticulate litigants that end up showing the judicial candidate, no matter his/her real faults, as a victim of idiotic losers, AND play dumb about FOIA requests relative to judges who were allowed to resign instead of being disqualified.
If you don’t believe me, try finding out why D. Craig Brown, formerly an SC Circuit Judge based in Florence, SC, SUDDENDLY retired in his early 50s effective 30 June 2023? He was the toughest sentencer EVER but did so for corrupt reasons. I shall, God willing, dip my proverbial hat to you if you get to the bottom of the D. Craig Brown story OR AT LEAST expose how and why the system is protecting him from exposure.
Fifth, in SC, a governor’s nominations of judges guarantees that no black, minority, or Democrat, would ever be nominated.
You clearly want to make Alan Wilson the future emperor of South Carolina and have yourself as his Rasputin.
See? You stopped pushing for accountability of Becky Hill as soon as Alan Wilson put out a public statement that “it is time to move on” and as soon as her lawyer, Justin Bamberg, started sponsoring you and advertising on your blog.
I was beginning to buy your “starving artist” narrative until your recent cop-outs convinced me you are another paid propagandist for the prosecutors and prison-pushers.
Remember the Cash-for-Kids scandal of Pennsylvania’s judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, who were convicted of accepting money in return for imposing harsh adjudications on juveniles to increase occupancy at a private prison operated by PA Child Care?
That is what you and your prison-pushers calling themselves victims’ advocates want for SC.

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