Senators keep tight control over county magistrates
By RICK BRUNDRETT
If there’s one power that S.C. senators likely will never relinquish – at least willingly – it’s their control over the selection of the state’s more than 300 county magistrates.
Magistrates, who handle traffic tickets and other relatively minor criminal and civil cases, know how much authority senators can exercise even after their judicial terms expire. Under a loophole in state law known as “holdover status,” magistrates can continue to serve indefinitely past their official terms – and feel more pressure to cater to their local senators.
As of last week, one magistrate had been in “holdover status” for nearly 19 years.
State law allows senators to recommend magistrate candidates for their respective counties to the governor, who makes appointments – usually a given after background checks – with consent of the Senate through typically quick voice votes. Magistrates don’t have to be lawyers, though new judges must have at least a bachelor’s degree.
The law allows magistrates to serve four-year terms “and until their successors are appointed and qualified,” meaning they can continue working after their terms expire – if allowed by their county senators. The S.C. Supreme Court can suspend or remove magistrates before their terms expire for ethical misconduct or incapacity to serve.
Through last week, 42 magistrates were serving in “holdover status,” affecting at least one judge in half of the state’s 46 counties, according to records provided by the S.C. Judicial Department after The Nerve filed a state Freedom of Information Act request.
The Nerve over the years has reported about the holdover issue and senators’ control over the selection of magistrates. After Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, for example, in 2019 quietly pushed through the appointment of former lawmaker Mike Pitts as a Laurens County magistrate, The Nerve revealed that in 12 counties, including Laurens, just one senator holds that power.
The Nerve’s latest review found magistrates serving in holdover status in at least four counties, including Laurens, where one senator has the sole nominating authority.
Typically, senators create the holdover problem by either not renominating incumbent magistrates, or not submitting new candidates’ names to the governor.
In Union County, all five of its magistrates were in holdover status through last week – the largest number of judges in any of the affected 23 counties, The Nerve’s review found. Four of the judges’ terms expired nearly six years ago; the other magistrate has been in holdover status for almost two years.
Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, whose district covers part of Union County and is that county’s legislative delegation chairman, didn’t return a phone message Tuesday from The Nerve seeking comment.
Sen. Shane Martin also represents part of Union County and is chairman of the legislative delegation in his home county of Spartanburg, which as of last week had four magistrates in holdover status for almost six years, records show. Martin, a Republican, didn’t respond Tuesday to a phone message from The Nerve.
As of last week, Oconee County had three magistrates in holdover status – two since 2006 and one since 2010, according to records. Republican Sen. Thomas Alexander, who has the sole nominating power in that county, didn’t return a phone message Tuesday from The Nerve.
‘What I can control’
Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Republican Sen. Rex Rice of neighboring Pickens County, said Alexander, who represents part of Pickens County, typically defers to him on Pickens County magistrate candidates.
All four Pickens County magistrates have been in holdover status for nearly three years, records show. Asked why, Rice replied: “At this point, I probably need to go ahead and do the reappointments. I had some concerns about some of the actions of some of the judges up there, and I was not ready to reappoint them because I felt like the way they were handling constituents was not at the level it should be.”
Under state law, magistrates generally handle criminal cases involving a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, and civil cases involving disputes of up to $7,500.
Rice declined to discuss specifics of the issues he had with the incumbent judges. But he contended that keeping them in holdover status had a “positive effect.”
“I know it’s been a while, but the net effect, I believe, is that they knew they were in holdover status,” he said. “I think it made a difference in their actions.”
The Nerve’s review found that the terms of 24 of the state’s 42 magistrates in holdover status expired either nearly three years or two years ago.
As of last week, the magistrate serving in the longest holdover period was Jasper County magistrate Donna Lynah, whose term expired on April 30, 2002 – almost 19 years ago.
Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, a Democrat from Colleton County who also chairs the Jasper County legislative delegation, said she recommended another candidate for Lynah’s seat last year, but Republican Gov. Henry McMaster didn’t act on it then because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Matthews, who has been a senator since 2015, said she resubmitted the candidate’s name this year, but no appointment has been made, adding that the Governor’s Office hadn’t yet done “the investigation on the person.”
An attorney, Matthews declined to identify the candidate or discuss why she didn’t recommend Lynah for reappointment.
“I can control what I can control – the appointment or not to appoint,” she said.
Following is a list by county of the magistrates who were in holdover status as of last week, according to Judicial Department records:
- Allendale: John Chaney
- Bamberg: Edward Freeman
- Barnwell: Robert Cooper
- Beaufort: Jean McCormick, Rod Sproatt
- Charleston: Ittriss Jenkins, Jackson Seth Whipper
- Chesterfield: Vivian Patrick
- Colleton: Keisha Gadsden
- Darlington: Cheveron Scott
- Edgefield: James McLaurin
- Florence: Jerry Rivers
- Georgetown: Johnathan Guiles, Gwendolyn McNeil, Isaac Pyatt
- Greenville: Jacquelyn Duckett, Seldon Peden
- Jasper: Donna Lynah, Warren Johnson
- Kershaw: Darrell Drakeford
- Laurens: William Wham
- Lee: Shirley Davidson
- Marlboro: Grover McQueen
- Oconee: William Derrick, Blake Norton, Michael Simmons
- Orangeburg: Samuel Daily, Donald West
- Pickens: Bruce Anders, Michael Baker, Benjamin Dow, Stanley Gillespie
- Spartanburg: Kenneth Dover, Jimmy Henson, Tina McMillan, James West
- Sumter: Lee Twohig
- Union: Jimmy Crocker, Toney Farr, David Morrow, Harold Smith, Arthur Sprouse
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
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