State House

South Carolina Senators Introducing Judicial Reform Bill

Proposal to reshape controversial screening commission has twenty-two cosponsors …

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Twenty-two members of the South Carolina Senate are prepared to introduce a judicial reform bill this week, lawmakers familiar with the draft legislation have confirmed to this media outlet.

Last week, our outlet reported on the initial outlines of this proposal – which aims to change the way judges are chosen in the Palmetto State.

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.

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.

Also getting worse? The overt politicization of legislative elections for judges – a process which is rife with corrupt insider dealmaking.

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After months of delay on the issue, senators finally took up reform proposals last Tuesday – and last Friday I noted progress had been made in crafting a bill. This week, twenty-two senators – led by Greg Hembree of North Myrtle Beach, Wes Climer of Rock Hill and Michael Johnson of Fort Mill – have signed onto a bill that makes the first significant changes to the state’s scandal-scarred Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC).

Climer, readers will recall, is the reason the General Assembly is addressing this issue. Last fall, the second-term Republican stood up and said “enough is enough” – and vowed to filibuster judicial elections unless a reform bill was passed.

Earlier this month, he was as good as his word …

The bill senators are advancing contains multiple changes to the composition of the JMSC – which is currently controlled by lawyer-legislators. For starters, the panel would be comprised of nine appointees: Two named by the governor, two named by the speaker of the House, one named by the Senate president, one by the Senate judiciary chairman, one chosen by the state’s sixteen solicitors, one chosen by the state’s public defenders and one chosen by the chief justice of the S.C. supreme court.

Worth noting? None of the appointees are allowed to be members of the S.C. General Assembly – or family members of state lawmakers. The bill would also limit appointees to serving two, non-consecutive four-year terms.

(Click to View)

A draft copy of S.C. Senate judicial reform legislation . (Provided)

“By giving the executive branch a meaningful role in judicial appointments and removing lawyer legislators from the JMSC, these reforms will substantially reduce undue political influence on the judiciary,” Climer told me on Tuesday evening.

Senator Johnson concurred.

“Public perception is that the judiciary is broken,” he said. “Changing the JMSC, and removing the obvious conflicts, goes a long way to changing that.”

The proposal would also establish JMSC as an independent board – disconnecting it from the General Assembly and empowering it with the authority to hire (and fire) its own staff.

In addition to changing the composition of the committee, the legislation would also reform the way it screens out candidates. 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. This legislation would ensure every judicial candidate found qualified by the JMSC would receive a vote.

According to our sources, the draft bill is “in the box” and will be read across the desk of the Senate for the first time tomorrow (February 14, 2024).

Obviously, this proposal falls short of what I’ve previously laid out as 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.

While paling in comparison to such a sweeping reform, I nonetheless support the passage of this proposal as a necessary and important first step toward removing the corrosive influence of lawyer-legislators over our judicial selection process. It is not perfect, but it is progress.

“Ultimately … I care less about the specific structural change and more about the outcomes it engenders,” I noted last week. “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.”

Count on this media outlet to continue providing said vigilance …

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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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4 comments

Avatar photo
VERITAS Top fan February 14, 2024 at 6:56 am

This “first step” falls obscenely short of authentic reform. The passivity of South Carolinians has allowed this grotesquely corrupt and criminal judicial system to flourish for the likes of the Murdaughs, Todd Rutherfords and countless others. Only until the people elect judges will this gasping-for-air judicial system be truly “reformed”.

Reply
Rebecca Shields Top fan February 14, 2024 at 8:35 am

This is a big step in the right direction. Judges running for election by the public would be a terrible situation because they would be fund raising from the defense attorneys and still owe them. They don’t need to “owe” anyone except the justice system

Reply
SubZeroIQ February 14, 2024 at 4:51 pm

For the nth time, something must be done about the indefinite-term “citizens’ screening committees” which consist of lawyers whom no one elected.
Also, some feed back from litigants who appear pro se, and are too numerous to be ignored, must be legislated into the judicial selection process.
Otherwise, why did you, FITS, not post the bill itself? And what will happen next?

Reply
River1187 Top fan February 14, 2024 at 5:44 pm

I just want to see pro law enforcement judges that actually get to stay on the bench. The esquire corruption runs deep.

Reply

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