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Legislative Panel Nominating Unqualified Judicial Candidates?

A judicial screening committee dominated by state lawmakers has nominated a top court administrator and two other attorneys for family court judgeships, despite a report contending that the candidates are unqualified for the seats.

The Judicial Qualifications Committee of the S.C. Bar, the state’s professional organization for attorneys, determined that Rosalyn Frierson, who has been the S.C. Court Administration director since 1998, is unqualified for a newly created, at-large family court seat, citing a lack of experience, according to a recent committee report.

The committee also found Columbia attorney Robert Masella and Greenwood lawyer Tommy Stanford unqualified for two other existing family court seats.

But the state panel that nominates judges – the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission – nominated Frierson, Masella and Stanford for the seats after finding them qualified during screening hearings earlier this month, records show.  

Under state law, the commission nominates judicial candidates for election in the S.C. General Assembly. The S.C. Bar’s judicial qualifications reports can be considered by, though are not binding on, the commission.

Screening hearings for the next round of judicial elections are scheduled to continue Tuesday.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges. By law, six of the 10 members of the Palmetto State’s Judicial Merit Selection Commission are state lawmakers – an organizational structure not found anywhere else in the country, The Nerve previously reported.

A biography of Frierson posted on the Judicial Department’s website indicates she has never practiced law in any South Carolina court, including family courts. Before becoming the state court administrator, Frierson, who has been a lawyer for 20 years, worked as a law clerk for then-S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney, a Supreme Court staff attorney, and a research analyst for the budget-writing S.C. House Ways and Means Committee.

Several veteran family law attorneys who asked not to be identified when contacted by The Nerve cited Frierson’s lack of courtroom experience. “She’s never set foot in a court with a client,” one lawyer said.

Frierson reports to Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who heads the Judicial Department and faces mandatory retirement in 2015 when she turns 72. Toal’s 10-year term as chief justice expires in 2014.

Citing growing caseloads, Toal pushed state lawmakers earlier this year to create six family court judicial seats in addition to the 52 existing circuit-based seats, which run for six-year terms.

As the state court administrator, Frierson was earning $127,156 annually as of Sept. 10, while family court judges were making $130,689, according to a salary database maintained by The State newspaper.

Although found unqualified in the category of experience, Frierson was found qualified by the S.C. Bar’s Judicial Qualifications Committee in eight other categories: constitutional qualifications, physical health, mental stability, ethical fitness, professional and academic ability, character, reputation and judicial temperament, according to the committee report.

Besides Frierson, the Judicial Merit Selection Commission qualified and nominated two other attorneys - Mary Jane Goodwin of Anderson and Kelly Pope of Lyman – for the at-large family court seat, records show. The commission screened no other candidates for the seat.

By law, the commission can nominate no more than three candidates for any judicial seat; and if there are three or fewer candidates, all qualified candidates must be nominated.

The S.C. Bar’s Judicial Qualifications Committee found Masella, a former Columbia municipal judge who is seeking a 5th Circuit Family Court seat, unqualified in the following categories: ethical fitness, character, reputation and judicial temperament. Stanford, who is seeking a family court seat in the 8th Circuit, was found unqualified in the category of professional and academic ability.

The committee report did not provide any specifics supporting its findings.

The Judicial Merit Selection Commission qualified and nominated two other candidates for each of the seats sought by Masella and Stanford.

Frierson declined comment when contacted last week by The Nerve. Masella and Stanford did not respond to written and phone messages left for them last week.

The S.C. Bar’s Judicial Qualifications Committee is made up of 100 members whose identities are confidential, Bar spokeswoman Leigh Thomas told The Nerve. Its screening process includes interviews of each candidate by at least three committee members, and at least 30 other interviews for each candidate with attorneys “indicating knowledge of the candidate,” according to Bar literature.

All of the Bar’s interviews are confidential.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, S.C. Bar President Angus Macaulay, an attorney with the Columbia firm of Nexsen Pruet, declined comment on his organization’s findings on Frierson, Masella and Stanford. But he defended the Bar’s screening process.

“These reports are the result of interviews of Bar members in geographic and practice areas appropriate to the judicial office being pursued by each candidate,” Macaulay said in a written response. “The Committee, comprised of Bar members who work diligently to produce the reports, conducts a significant number of investigative interviews for each candidate, and the candidates themselves are directly interviewed. The investigative interviews are confidential to encourage candid responses.”

“Ultimately,” Macaulay continued, “the General Assembly is responsible for electing those candidates most qualified to serve.”

Contacted Sunday, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and vice-chairman of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, defended the commission’s nomination of Frierson.

“She is qualified as far as her professional, her academic background goes,” said Martin, who is not an attorney. “She has dealt with that area of the law in dealing with rules related to the family court.”

“We respect the Bar’s input,” Martin continued, “but it is not the final determining factor in making our decision.”

Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester and the commission chairman, told The Nerve on Sunday that although the Bar’s report on judicial candidates is not binding on the commission, it can be considered later by the General Assembly during judicial elections. The next elections likely will be held in early February, he said.

“I certainly think they (Bar judicial reports) do carry great weight in the General Assembly,” said Delleney, an attorney. “But it shouldn’t be dispositive (on the Judicial Merit Selection Commission) because if it is dispositive, then the screening process should be turned over to the Bar.”

Delleney contended that the Bar, which he described as “not the most conservative organization I can think of,’ and other groups “want to take over this (screening) process.”

“This is a legislative process, and it should remain one,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

 

Accountability General Assembly Judiciary Transparency

S.C. Bar Rosalyn Frierson Sen. Larry Martin Tommy Stanford S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal Robert Masella Rep. Greg Delleney Angus Macaulay