December 4, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

State law keeps judicial income hidden from public

By RICK BRUNDRETT

Under state court rules, judges must avoid even the “appearance of impropriety” in all of their activities, and “minimize the risk of conflict” with their official duties.

Citizens, however, typically have no easy way of determining whether the income sources of many South Carolina judges or their immediate family members pose potential conflicts of interest when those judges are hearing court cases. That’s partly because unlike for other public officials, state law exempts most judges from filing annual income-disclosure statements with the State Ethics Commission.

And judges also are exempted from having their annual taxpayer-funded incomes listed in the online salary database for state employees making at least $50,000 yearly.

After initially ignoring a request in October under the state’s open-records law for the current salaries of higher-level judges and well-paid court staff, the Judicial Department eventually released its staff salary list, though only after being contacted by a law firm hired by The Nerve and its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council.

Supreme Court chief justice Donald Beatty, for example, makes a base annual salary of $217,464 – the top amount on the provided list – while the other four justices’ base salary is $207,108, records show.

For judges elected by the 170-member Legislature, which includes Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges, state law requires that candidates file an income-disclosure report, known as a statement of economic interests (SEI), with the House and Senate Ethics committees when they run for judicial seats.

But that generally occurs every 10 years for Supreme Court justices, and every six years for Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges.

State law requires that SEIs include officials’ and their immediate family members’ public incomes, and the sources, though not amounts, of their private income. In comparison, income-disclosure reports for federal judges require details of investment income.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges. In the federal system, judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The S.C. Legislature in February filled 37 full-time judicial seats, including re-electing Supreme Court justice Kaye Hearn to another 10-year term, and electing Bruce Williams as the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, which is the state’s second-highest court.

The Nerve earlier this month submitted state Freedom of Information Act requests to the House and Senate Ethics committees for the SEIs of all candidates in the Feb. 2 judicial elections. In a written response last week, Richard Pearce, legal counsel with the House Clerk’s Office and Office of Research and Constituent Services, said the clerk’s office has “no documents in response to your request,” adding, “Thank you for your interest in the South Carolina House of Representatives.”

Senate clerk Jeff Gossett in his written response last week declined to release any SEIs, citing a state law requiring that records provided to a legislatively controlled judicial screening committee, known as the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), be kept “strictly confidential” unless presented during a public screening hearing – and destroyed after the commission reports its findings of fact.

“In accordance with these statutes, all statements of economic interests filed by judicial candidates who were voted upon by the General Assembly in a joint session on February 2, 2022, are confidential and exempt from disclosure,” Gossett said.

The Nerve in January reported that the JMSC wouldn’t say why it found longtime Horry County circuit court judge Steven John unqualified. The JMSC’s chief lawyer attorney, Erin Crawford, noted that under state law, when candidates withdraw – as John did after he was found unqualified – any records submitted to the commission must be kept “confidential and destroyed as soon as possible” after the candidate’s written notification of withdrawal.

The Nerve over the years repeatedly has pointed out the secrecy in the judicial screening process.

Judges in the “unified” court system who are elected by legislators are exempted from the state law requiring other elected officials to annually file SEIs with the State Ethics Commission. In contrast, county probate judges, who are popularly elected, and state Administrative Law Court judges, who are elected by the Legislature but are not part of the judicial branch, submit annual SEIs to the Ethics Commission.

The Nerve on Tuesday submitted an open-records request to the Judicial Department for the latest income-disclosure records for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-3948273 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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