October 7, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Judicial Department keeping staff salaries secret – again

By RICK BRUNDRETT

In a repeat of last year, the S.C. Judicial Department is resisting The Nerve’s request to reveal the current pay of its employees, including dozens of judges making six-figure salaries.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, the administrative head of the state court system, wants nearly $9 million more in general funds for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, to cover 76 full-time-equivalent (FTE) administrative support positions that have been funded with court fines and fees, according to the agency’s annual budget request submitted to the S.C. Department of Administration.

If approved, that amount would be in addition to $7 million in general funds that lawmakers approved for this fiscal year to cover 92 other FTE administrative support positions that had been funded with court fines and fees, according to the budget request.

The Nerve on Oct. 25 submitted a request to the department under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) asking for an updated salary list of all department employees making at least $50,000 annually. Under the FOIA, the exact compensation of a public employee – which would include judges and court staff – earning $50,000 or more a year is not exempt from disclosure to the public.

Unlike most other state agencies, the Judicial Department does not provide salary information for its $50,000-plus workers to the online state salary database maintained by the Department of Administration. The Judicial Department is among 17 state entities that specifically are exempted from the database, as The Nerve has pointed out.

And, unlike other public officials, Beatty and other judges elected by the Legislature don’t have to provide annual income-disclosure statements to the State Ethics Commission, which are posted on the commission’s website.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges. The S.C. Legislature early next year is expected to fill 48 judicial seats, screening hearings for which were recently held.

The Judicial Department missed a 10-business-day deadline under the FOIA to respond to The Nerve’s October request for employee salaries, which means, according to the law, that the request must be considered approved.

Ginny Jones, the court system’s public information director, didn’t respond to the email FOIA request, nor did she or Beatty reply to two follow-up emails since Nov. 22 and a written letter mailed earlier this week.

In an email response in March to an unrelated FOIA request, Jones informed The Nerve that although “we take the position that (the) FOIA does not apply to the Judicial Branch, we will make reasonable efforts to accommodate your requests.”

The Nerve in October 2020 submitted an FOIA request for Judicial Department salaries, but in denying the request, Jones in an email response then said the Supreme Court has “never held that the Judicial Branch’s internal records may be released to the public.”

“In fact,” she continued, “the longstanding practice has been that internal records will not be made available to the public.”

But less than three hours after The Nerve revealed in a November 2020 story that the department was keeping the salaries secret, the agency without explanation released a list of 300 staffers making at least $50,000.

In the Nov. 20, 2020, story, Taylor Smith, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, said in a written statement that the department’s “failure to provide the salary information requested in this instance is a violation of state law and harms the public’s understanding of the performance of public officials within the Department.”

The Nerve, through its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, is an associate member of the Press Association.

As the state’s top judge, Beatty was making $212,160 in base pay as of November 2020, according to the salary list provided then to The Nerve. That salary was $4,160 higher than his base pay after he convinced lawmakers in 2019 to give himself and other judges a 33% raise.

The four other Supreme Court justices – John Few, Kaye Hearn, George James and John Kittredge – were each making $202,057 as of November 2020, while James Lockemy, the chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals – the state’s second-highest court – was making $200,036, according to the salary list.

The salary list showed that 46 circuit judges each were making a $191,954 base annual salary as of November 2020, with 59 family court judges receiving a base $186,902.

The three highest-paid department staffers, other than judges, as of November 2020 were former Supreme Court clerk Daniel Shearouse, who retired earlier this year; state court administrator Tonnya Kohn; and John Nichols, who heads the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates complaints filed against judges and lawyers. Each of those employees were making $139,322, according to the salary list.

The department’s total budget for this fiscal year is about $119.5 million, an approximately $16.9 million, or 16.4%, hike from fiscal year 2020, state budget records show. The agency’s budget request for next fiscal year calls for an additional $9.6 million in general fund spending, including $8.9 million for 76 FTE administrative support positions that have been funded, according to the request, with court fines and fees.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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