State House

South Carolina Judicial Reform Bills Face Uncertain Future

House, Senate proposals differ …

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South Carolina House judiciary committee chairman Weston Newton announced this week that judicial reform legislation was “going to conference committee” – meaning lawmakers weren’t in alignment on their proposals and would need additional time to hammer out their differences. Newton made the announcement after submitting a unanimously approved amendment replacing the Senate’s judicial reform bill (S.1046) with a slightly modified version of the House bill (H.5170).

Assuming Newton is correct and the legislation clears the House in what little time remains in the legislative session, a panel of lawmakers from both chambers would meet to merge the two pieces of legislation – which make changes to the way the Palmetto State selects its judges.

Currently the South Carolina Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) screens candidates and advances three names to be voted on by the General Assembly. The JMSC is currently a 10-member body, with House and Senate leaders appointing its members.

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Unscrupulous members of the JMSC who are also practicing attorneys have allegedly used the current system’s lack of term limits to their professional advantage. Judges know that select JMSC members who appear in their courtrooms are liable to derail their career should they step out of line.

This opportunity for abuse is coupled with the power of the JMSC to cut the field of contenders down to three nominees. It has been alleged that JMSC members have pressured otherwise qualified candidates to drop out of the race on numerous occasions to aid the candidacies of their favored nominees.

The House and Senate proposals differ in how the address the aforementioned problems. House lawmakers propose removing the cap on how many qualified candidates may be advanced, while the Senate seeks to bump the cap to six nominees.

Both bodies proposed JMSC member term limits. House lawmakers supported two year terms. Under the House proposal JMSC members may serve two of these two year terms consecutively, Senate lawmakers proposed four year appointments, with a mandatory four year break from the JMSC before one is eligible to serve again on the commission.

Additionally, both the House and Senate intend to amend the balance of power between the three branches of government by allowing the executive branch to appoint a portion of the panel. Both proposals would increase the size of the JMSC. House lawmakers proposed a 13-member body with each chamber appointing four members and the governor getting five appointments. Senators suggested a 12-member body, with the House, Senate and governor’ s office enjoying an equal number of appointments.

Newton’s amendment removed a key piece of the House’s original legislation, which sought to establish the JMSC as an independently staffed and operated agency. While Newton spoke of his personal support for the idea, he said it was politically untenable if a bill was to be passed this legislative session.

Before the subcommittee voted on Newton’s amendment, members of the public addressed the body. A number of the speakers cited grievous issues with the South Carolina family court system – which was not addressed in either the House or Senate’s bills.

Another speaker used her opportunity to put on a musical preference for the subcommittee.

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Once the shock of the performance wore off, legislators quickly advanced the amendment.

The House’s reform proposals are more extensive than the Senate’s in most every way, and while judicial reform advocates present at the subcommittee meeting expressed their concerns that a conference committee will “water down” the House bill, there was universal praise for House leadership’s willingness to advance the issue, as many feared opponents of reform intended to “run the clock out” on the legislative session without advancing the issue.

Count on FITSNews to keep you informed as the legislation finishes it’s path through the house and legislators begin their debate over its final language.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(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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