State House

Judicial Reform’s Last Gasp In South Carolina

Status quo holds …

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South Carolina lawmakers – who wield total control over the Palmetto State’s judicial branch of government – were never serious about surrendering their authority over this supposedly “independent” branch of government. Sure, they’ve engaged in political theater over the last few months aimed at convincing the public – and specifically GOP primary voters – of their earnestness, but the proverbial proof is in the proverbial pudding.

And the pudding? It’s pure horsesh*t …

Before the 2024 legislative session began I called out this farce for exactly what it has become … a political solution as opposed to an actual solution.

An actual solution, lawmakers insisted, would require changing the Palmetto State’s constitution – something they clearly lack the political will to do. And so we end up with … well … “reform.”

Maybe …

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As I have often noted, if lawmakers are serious about an issue … they get it done. They find a way. Last year, for example, they spent less than two weeks drafting, passing and sending to the governor a $1.3 billion crony capitalist handout for electric vehicle manufacturer Scout.

“That is the new 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,” I wrote recently on this subject.

Again, if they want it done … it gets done. If they don’t? We wind up where we are now …

As the clock winds down on the 2024 legislative session, judicial reform is on the cusp of becoming a casualty of the calendar – although given the anemia of the legislation currently making its way through the process, it’s hard to tell whether it really matters. The bills being considered are so weak and watered down it’s a wonder whether their passage will do anything to materially improve the integrity of the judiciary in the Palmetto State.

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RELATED | JUDICIAL REFORM: THE PERFECT FIX

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To recap: This 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.

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.

Here is where we stand: Late last month, the House replaced the Senate’s judicial “reform” bill (S.1046) with a slightly modified version of its own bill (H.5170). On Tuesday (May 7, 2024), this modified Senate bill cleared the S.C. House by a whopping 112-6 margin.

Take a look …

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S.C. State House voting board on May 7, 2024. (Provided)

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To be clear: Neither of these bills did much of anything to reform the scandal-scarred S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC) – which is the legislatively controlled panel that screens candidates to be voted on by lawmakers.

The bills amended the terms of SCJMSC members – and allowed executive appointments for the first time – but neither version prohibited lawyer-legislators from serving on the panel. And both bills preserved the legislature’s control of the commission.

The only real “reform” contained in either proposal? Mild tweaking some of the processes by which the SCJMSC has historically rigged judicial races.

Unfortunately, senators opted not to concur with the House version of the bill – meaning the legislation must now go through a whole new set of hurdles vis-à-vis a “conference committee.”

For those of you unfamiliar with how the sausage is made in Columbia, S.C., a conference committee is a panel of six lawmakers – three from the House and three from the Senate – which meets to hammer out the final version of disputed legislation. Once this committee reaches an agreement – assuming it can – both chambers must approve the compromise before it gets sent to the governor’s desk.

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Legislative leaders made it abundantly clear they have no intention of passing a robust version of judicial reform when they stacked the conference committee with opponents of the issue. S.C. House speaker Murrell Smith – a lawyer-legislator – tapped judiciary chairman Weston Newton to the committee along with lawyer-legislators Leon Stavrinakis and Micah Caskey. Stavrinakis and Caskey are both stalwart defenders of the failed status quo.

The Senate’s delegation also includes a pair of staunch anti-reformers – judiciary chairman Luke Rankin and senator Gerald Malloy. The only pro-reform member of this panel? Senate majority leader Shane Massey.

Given the composition of this panel, it’s hard to see anything resembling a positive outcome for those who continue to suffer under the injustice of the present system … but given how watered down this compromise is likely to be, perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

It will force them to come back with something meaningful next year …

Lawmakers failed absolutely and abjectly on the issue of judicial reform during the current legislation session. They had a chance to make sweeping, transformative, long-overdue change to a glaringly corrupt system – change that could have made a material impact in enhancing the integrity of our judicial branch of government (while materially improving public safety and people’s lives).

Instead, they chose to play procedural games and preserve the power they have habitually abused for decades.

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 eight children.

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2 comments

Rebecca Shields Top fan May 10, 2024 at 9:03 am

Everyone needs to contact their senator and representative and tell them we are tired of this BS. I think I read 91% of S.C. citizens want a change to the JMSC. They seem to have forgotten they represent us and not their cronies. Corruption is rampant in S.C.

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VERITAS Top fan May 10, 2024 at 12:09 pm

South Carolina deserves what it gets when they don’t come together and FORCE these lawyer-legislators out of office and demand full reform. The Murdaugh legacy of complete and utter deplorable corruption of the system allowed their predator kingdom to rein for nearly 100 years. These lawyer-legislators are not going to let go of their power, status, prestige, monetary self-enrichment and hold on the entire government and law enforcement system until the people pull their life-support cord. Get ‘er done, people, or stop your whining and crying about the injustice of it all.

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