SC Politics

South Carolina Judicial Reform Crusader Frustrated With Flawed Bills

A “disaster” and a “facade” are all reformers have to show for their efforts this year …

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For months, FITSNews has covered state representative Joe White‘s advocacy on behalf of judicial reform during his first term in the South Carolina General Assembly. White, a 78-year-old retired businessman from Newberry County, campaigned on this issue and has had success building support for legislation aimed at changing how judges are selected in the Palmetto State.

But as leaders in both chambers of the legislature have advanced their respective reform bills, White convened a press conference in downtown Columbia S.C. to express what he views as flaws in their legislation.

And to criticize his own chamber for failing to make the issue a priority …

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South Carolina’s current judicial selection system requires those applying for judgeships to submit their resumes to the 10-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), a legislatively controlled panel. The S.C. Senate appoints five commission members; the S.C. House picks the other five.

The JMSC is dominated by lawyer-legislators, which puts judges in the position of having commission members who control their careers – and their salaries and office budgets – appear in their courtrooms, creating all manner of potential ethical quandaries.

“We the people know that allowing criminal defense attorneys to pick our judges is wrong” White told members of the media assembled outside of the Richland County Courthouse. “For months it seemed as though enough members of the South Carolina General Assembly might share this assessment, and maybe even bring about meaningful reform.”


Rep Joe White Calls for Judicial Reform outside of State House
Richland County Courthouse

Advocates like White were hopeful when S.C. House speaker Murrell Smith formed an ad hoc committee to study the issue of judicial reform. Smith’s panel produced a bill (H.5170), while senators Dick Harpootlian and Wes Climer drafted a bipartisan reform bill (S.1046) in their chamber. However, after compromise in the Senate and slow progression in the House, White argues the opportunity to enact meaningful reform has been lost.

“In its original form S.1046 was a pretty good bill,” White said, praising the legislation for empowering the governor to appoint JMSC members, banning trial lawyers who serve in the legislature from serving on the commission, and making the JMSC legally independent from the legislative branch.

“How excited I was when I saw that original bill,” he said.

According to White, though, the version of the bill that made it through the Senate is “a disaster.”

“As approved by the Senate, the governor would have appointments – but those appointments are dictated by the legislature,” he said, adding “it would be possible for two-thirds of the people on the JMSC to be lawyer-legislators.”

That would mean the judicial branch of government would remain subservient to the legislature – not a separate and equal branch of government in its own right.

“It is possible to amend S.1046 to make it acceptable, but getting the House to do so, and then getting the Senate to concur is a monumental task,” White said.



White went on to call the House’s judicial reform push “a facade” – reminding his audience of the fast-approaching legislative crossover date, or “the date at which no bill that has not been passed by one chamber can be debated and passed by the other chamber.”

This year’s crossover deadline is April 10, 2024, and the House’s judicial reform bill has yet to pass out of the chamber’s judiciary committee, meaning it is unlikely to make it to the Senate before this crucial procedural deadline.

“At this point, it is not possible to have H. 5170 debated, amended, and passed by the House before next Wednesday,” White said.

“Last fall, Speaker Smith appointed that ad hoc committee to look at judicial reform, It looked good, didn’t it?” White said, but he pointed out this committee failed to put a bill on the speaker’s desk in a timely manner.




“I cannot prove that the slow process has been intentional, but I can tell you that EVERY TIME either the House or the Senate want to pass legislation they coalesce the troops and get it from first reading to approval in record time,” White said.

The freshman legislator pointed to last year’s rapid passage of a $1.3 billion incentive deal aimed at enticing Volkswagen to build a new electric vehicle factory in the state before concluding “If the speaker wanted judicial reform, we would have passed a bill in the House this year.”

According to White, the last hope for judicial reform this legislative session is the “disaster” legislation passed by the Senate.

“The only bill that could become law this year is S. 1046,” White said.

White said he planned on introducing an amendment to the Senate bill which would ban members of the General Assembly who appear in the state’s courts from serving on the JMSC, adding he was “confident that other amendments will be submitted once the debate on S. 1046 begins”

The lawmaker ended his address by imploring citizens to contact their representatives saying he believes “it is still possible to achieve real judicial reform this year, but the only way that happens is by constituents putting pressure on your elected legislators.”

Count on FITSNews to continue our coverage of this issue …



(Via: Travis Bell)

Dylan Nolan is the director of special projects at FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore school of business in 2021 with an accounting degree. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.



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1 comment

tamara rhodes Top fan April 5, 2024 at 3:02 pm

They don’t fix the problem because they don’t want to fix the problem.


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