By RICK BRUNDRETT
If you wind up in court in South Carolina, chances are good you’ll appear before a county magistrate.
Magistrates, who aren’t required to be lawyers, handle speeding tickets and other relatively minor traffic offenses, crimes that carry a maximum jail sentence of 30 days, and civil cases involving $7,500 or less. There are about 300 magistrates statewide.
Magistrates’ pay varies by county; in the Midlands, for example, annual salaries of higher-paid magistrates range from $54,309 in Kershaw County to $78,187 in Richland County, according to a salary database of county workers who earn at least $50,000 yearly.
What many folks don’t realize is how much control state senators – and more specifically, county senatorial delegations – have over who gets appointed as magistrates. Under state law, magistrates are nominated by their respective county delegations, appointed by the governor – usually a given – and confirmed by the Senate in typically perfunctory voice votes.
County Senate delegations generally can’t remove magistrates during their four-year terms, though the S.C. Supreme Court can sanction the judges – including removal from office – for ethical violations.
But a loophole in state law allows magistrates to continue indefinitely in office after their terms expire, allowing their county Senate delegations to potentially exert even more influence over them while in “holdover” status.
Typically, county delegations create the problem by either not renominating incumbent magistrates, or not submitting new candidates’ names to the governor.
A review by The Nerve of records obtained from the Governor’s Office under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, as well as records from the state Judicial Department, found that as of last week, at least 61 magistrates, or 20 percent of the state’s 302 magistrates, were in “holdover” status.
That’s nearly three times as many magistrates who were in legal limbo when The Nerve first checked official records two years ago.
Speaking on behalf of Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who was vacationing last week in Israel with her family, Rosalyn Frierson, the state court administration director, told The Nerve in a written response that Toal “continues to be very concerned about keeping the magistrates in holdover status.”
“By doing so, it does not promote judicial independence at our most utilized level of the court system,” Frierson said. “She (Toal) has in fact expressed her concerns to Senate leadership on many occasions.”
One judge – Colleton County Magistrate Kenneth Campbell – has been in holdover status for nearly 10 years, the longest period listed in both Judicial Department and Governor’s Office records. Campbell did not respond to a written message last week from The Nerve.
Colleton County has had three other magistrates in holdover status since April 30, 2010, records show.
Contacted last week, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, and a member of the Colleton County delegation, said he was ill and asked a Nerve reporter to call him back later in the week, though he did not return several subsequent phone messages before publication of this story.
The two other members of the Colleton County senatorial delegation – Sens. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and John Matthews, D-Orangeburg – didn’t return messages left for them last week by The Nerve.
There were discrepancies between the Judicial Department and Governor’s Office holdover lists reviewed by The Nerve. Besides Campbell, for example, Judicial Department records list two other judges – Jasper County Magistrate Donna Lynah and Lee County Magistrate Albert Bradley – as being in holdover status for nearly 10 years, though Governor’s Office records list a shorter period for both.
The Nerve’s review found that of 61 magistrates in holdover status, as listed in Judicial Department records,16, or 26 percent, are in Charleston County, the most of any county. All of the judges’ terms expired on April 30 of last year, records show.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and the county’s senatorial delegation chairman, told The Nerve last week that the county delegation recently submitted all but one of the names of the county’s magistrates to Gov. Nikki Haley for renomination.
Campsen said that with last year’s redrawing of legislative district lines, he and then-Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, had concerns about allowing the county’s delegation to nominate magistrates from districts that could change by the time of this year’s general election. The redrawing of district lines, known as redistricting, was the result of the 2010 U.S. Census.
“Why should I nominate a magistrate I don’t represent in the future, and why should you nominate a magistrate I will represent in the future?” Campsen said, noting that allowing that situation to occur would “diminish the authority of senators.”
With last month’s unexpected move, however, by McConnell to the position of lieutenant governor, Campsen said he “wanted his (McConnell’s) vote” on the county’s magistrates before the job changeover. The nomination list was submitted to Haley shortly before McConnell’s transfer, he said.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey did not respond last week to written questions from The Nerve about the holdover status of magistrates statewide.
Campsen said when he became the senatorial delegation chairman about five years ago, he successfully pushed to get the county’s magistrates appointed all at the same time, adding, “I don’t think any judge should be any more beholden to legislators than they currently are.”
Asked which judge wasn’t recommended this year for renomination, Campsen said Magistrate Patricia Henley was rejected because she had released an attempted murder defendant on a personal recognizance bond, which doesn’t require a defendant to put up any money up front.
“It shocked my conscience,” Campsen said, adding that he and McConnell, both of whom are attorneys, shared “concerns” about Henley.
Henley did not respond to a written message from The Nerve last week seeking comment.
Next to Charleston County, Cherokee County had the highest number of magistrates in holdover status (six) in The Nerve’s review, followed by Colleton, Jasper, Marlboro and Newberry counties with four each, Judicial Department records show.
Besides Magistrate Campbell of Colleton County, who is still on the bench even though his term expired on April 30, 2002, nine other magistrates have spent more than five years in holdover status, according to records from the Governor’s Office and Judicial Department.
Following are the nine judges with the approximate length of years in holdover status:
- McGregor Dennis, Berkeley County: nine years;
- Ellen Karesh, Berkeley County: nine years;
- James Ashmore, Spartanburg County: nine years;
- Kenneth Dover, Spartanburg County: nine years;
- Joseph Scarborough, Lee County: six years;
- Blake Norton, Oconee County: six years;
- William Derrick, Oconee County: six years;
- Algernon Solomons, Hampton County: six years; and
- Carolyn Williams, Hampton County: six years.
The Nerve last week sought comment from most of the nine magistrates. None responded to written messages.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.