Call it a senatorial power trip.
A loophole in state law allows senators to keep magistrates they nominate in their jobs indefinitely after their four-year terms expire. While serving their terms, magistrates can be removed only by the S.C. Supreme Court.
But senators can fire them at will if they are in special “holdover” status. Critics contend that gives senators far too much influence over their local magistrates, who handle speeding tickets, criminal charges that carry up to 30 days in jail, and disputes in lawsuits involving $7,500 or less.
About two dozen magistrates’ jobs statewide are in limbo, The Nerve has found.
Out of 311 active magistrates listed on the state Judicial Department’s Web site, 22, or 7 percent, were in holdover status as of Feb. 10, according to information provided by the Governor’s Office. In South Carolina, magistrates are nominated by their county’s senatorial delegation, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the full Senate.
The holdover period ranges from two to seven years; the average time is about 4.5 years.
Berkeley County has the most magistrates in holdover status with six. Ten other counties – Aiken, Chesterfield, Colleton, Darlington, Greenwood, Hampton, Lee, Oconee, Spartanburg and Williamsburg – have one to three judges in limbo.
“With the current economic crisis, we’re not making any changes at this point,” Berkeley County Republican senator Paul Campbell told The Nerve last week. “County Council has asked us to be careful about dealing with the magistrates because it can impact the amount of money that they have in salaries.”
Still, Campbell acknowledged that “we probably could renew some of them and probably will sooner than later.”
Another Berkeley County Republican senator, Chip Campsen, told The Nerve that as the Berkeley County delegation chairman, Campbell “deserves a little bit of a break” for the delay in re-nominating his county’s magistrates because he has been a senator for only several years.
Campsen, whose district mostly is in Charleston County, said it took him some time after becoming that county’s delegation chairman about three years ago to move four magistrates off holdover status. He said he has little influence over Berkeley County’s nominations with weighted voting.
“I’m not one of the black-hat guys,” said Campsen, an attorney. “I’m one of the white-hat guys who took a bunch of magistrates in holdover status who were beholden to the senators and got them appointed.”
Magistrates don’t have to be lawyers – and most aren’t – which puts them at a disadvantage when attorneys are in front of them. They are even under more pressure if those lawyers happen to be the senators who nominated them.
Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, told The Nerve late last year that former Spartanburg County Sens. Jim Ritchie and John Hawkins – both attorneys – bogged the nomination process down for years by trying to push through candidates on their own instead of relying on the past tradition of unanimous consent among the county’s delegation.
“They wanted to manipulate the courts and have a heads-up on their cases over there,” Reese contended.
Ritchie denied the allegation when contacted by The Nerve.
“I think I was in magistrate’s court twice when I was in the eight years in the Senate,” he said. “I had very little interaction with magistrate’s court.”
Ritchie said the Senate changed the magistrate nomination rules to allow for non-unanimous votes among a county’s delegation after the Spartanburg delegation couldn’t agree on removing a magistrate.
In a written reply to The Nerve, Hawkins declined to respond to Reese’s allegations, saying only, “I’m out of politics and intend to keep it that way.”
Of all of the current magistrates listed on the Judicial Department’s Web site, Colleton County magistrates Kenneth Campbell and William Cobb have each spent more than seven years in limbo – the longest among the group.
Cobb told The Nerve late last year he wasn’t aware he had been in holdover for that long, adding, “I never thought about it until you called.” He said he has never been influenced over the years by any of his nominating senators.
Cobb said Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Democrat whose district includes Colleton County, told him, “Don’t worry about the appointments; we’re going to take care of the appointments in January.”
Pinckney did not respond to several messages left by The Nerve.
Contacted by The Nerve, Aiken County Chief Magistrate Rodger Edmonds, who also is president of the S.C. Summary Court Judges Association, said that “normally, there’s not a problem” with senators interfering with magistrates in holdover status.
Edmonds said he couldn’t explain why one of his magistrates, Carolyn Neal, has been in holdover for more than six years.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said. “Senator (Greg) Ryberg said, ‘I want to hold off on her for awhile,’ and her appointment has come up twice since.”
Ryberg, an Aiken Republican, declined to discuss specifics of Neal’s status when contacted late last year by The Nerve, though he noted, “We have one who has not been reappointed. … I expect that we will intend to take care of it this legislative year.”
As for the criticism that senators have too much influence over magistrates in holdover status, Ryberg replied, “I have never called a magistrate to impact any cases that are held in magistrate court.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or email@example.com.