State House

South Carolina’s Judicial Reform Movement Makes Limited Progress

Incremental impact shows just how hard it will be to pull off real, lasting change in South Carolina …

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South Carolina’s Senate unanimously approved a “judicial reform” bill this week, although the measure contained precious little in the way of actual reform – and faces an uncertain future in the S.C. House of Representatives, where status quo leaders seem especially wedded to the Palmetto State’s corrupt method of judicial selection.

My media outlet has been leading the charge over the last few years for substantive reform of this badly broken system – citing the pervasive injustice of a judicial branch in which powerful lawyer-legislators screen judges, elect judges and set their salaries and office budgets.

Oh, and then argue cases in front of them … or worse, do backroom deals with them.

Does that sound like an independent judiciary to you? Of course not … because it isn’t.

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South Carolina is one of only two states in America in which lawmakers picks judges. That process is led by the JMSC, 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 invariably driven by corrupt insider dealmaking.

“The current method is rife with opaqueness, corruption and unfairness – yielding all manner of adverse and inherently unjust outcomes for the people who rely on our system,” I noted last month.

And the people have made it clear they’ve had enough of it …

Standing in the gap and fighting against the failed establishment has been state senator Wes Climer of Rock Hill, S.C. Unfortunately, with the notable exceptions of senators Dick Harpootlian, Michael Johnson, Josh Kimbrell and Rex Rice, Climer hasn’t had much help in his efforts. As a result, the bill that cleared the Senate this week – S. 1046 – is a far cry from the constitutional overhaul necessary to truly fix this system.

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Senator Wes Climer (right) is seen during a legislative session in Columbia, S.C. (Travis Bell/STATEHOUSE CAROLINA)

Don’t get me wrong: The Senate bill does a few good things. It gives the executive branch – specifically the governor’s office – four seats on a reconfigured 12-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), the panel which supposedly screens judges on the basis of their qualifications. Unfortunately, the remaining eight picks would remain in the hands of legislative leaders – with no prohibition on them choosing lawyer-legislators to fill the seats.

The bill would prohibit JMSC members from serving successive, four-year terms – and it would make some changes to the shady processes by which the panel currently operates. For starters, it includes a requirement to livestream all JMSC proceedings – and candidates would be prevented from dropping out of a particular race prior to the panel publishing a report on their qualifications. This is important because it would prevent the panel from forcing candidates out of races prior to assessing their fitness for office – one of the main methods by which judicial elections are currently manipulated.

Also, current judicial selection law limits legislative elections to three candidates – no matter how many are found qualified by the JMSC. The proposed legislation would raise the number of candidates in any given legislative election to six – which supporters believe would also help prevent the rigging of judicial races ahead of time. The bill would further create a “runoff” system within the legislative election process – a second vote between three finalists in the event the initial vote failed to yield a winner.

“This is a good first step on the road to fixing the judicial selection process,” Climer told me last week. “The governor gets seats on the JMSC. There’s more transparency. It will be harder for the JMSC to put its thumb on the scale behind closed doors. Those are wins. You take the wins when you can get them and then come back to fight more.”

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To his credit, Climer reportedly fought for much more – he just didn’t get the institutional backing he needed against a status quo that is clearly not interested in relinquishing its power over this process.

As I have often noted, if lawmakers are serious about an issue … they get it done. For example, lawmakers spent less than two weeks last year drafting, passing and sending to the governor a $1.3 billion crony capitalist handout for electric vehicle manufacturer Scout. That is the standard for decisive action established by the ruling uniparty in Columbia, S.C. – and don’t let any of the politicians campaigning for your votes this spring during the partisan primary elections tell you any differently.

So … should this bill be advanced? As I’ve often pointed out, I’m far more interested in the practical application of judicial reform than its policy particulars.

“Ultimately, I care less about the specific structural change and more about the outcomes it engenders,” I noted last month. “Simple or systemic, it is the outcomes which matter.”

And I do believe those outcomes are likely to improve under this bill …

Accordingly, I believe House leaders should move quickly to schedule a vote on S. 1046 – and get it to the governor’s desk without delay. This legislation would mark a modest improvement over the status quo, which makes it worth passing. Still, no one should confuse the bill for the sweeping, systemic change the current situation requires. In fact, its incremental impact on the judicial selection process proves just how hard it is going to be to pull off the real, lasting change South Carolina so desperately needs.

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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 eight children.

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