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Concealed court files reveal freebie judicial trips

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Last year, dozens of state judges attended one or more conferences at pricey resorts hosted by special-interest legal organizations that paid for all or part of their stays, The Nerve found in a review of court administration records.

Trip details involving the 77 S.C. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges who traveled to in- or out-of-state conferences in 2021 aren’t published on the Judicial Department’s website. Neither are their annual salaries, which also are exempted from the state salary database for higher-paid agency employees.

Besides that, the judges, who are elected by the S.C. Legislature, by law don’t have to file yearly income-disclosure reports with the State Ethics Commission, which are required of most other elected officials and are posted on the commission’s website.

For years, the S.C. Judicial Department – the third branch of government with a current total budget of $102.5 million – has lacked transparency about judicial pay and perks, as well as other details about its internal operations.

Court officials in August provided an updated salary list of judges and department staff making at least $50,000 annually, which The Nerve requested along with judges’ travel records. The Judicial Department earlier this year released its then-salary list only after the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – hired a law firm to press for the release of the documents.

The latest list shows yearly salaries for judges ranging from $197,321 for 57 family court judges to $223,987 for Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, who convinced state lawmakers in 2019 to give himself and other judges a 33% pay raise. Bruce Williams, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, makes $211,187.

The current annual salaries for 48 circuit court, eight other Court of Appeals and four associate Supreme Court judicial seats are $202,654, $207,987 and $213,321, respectively, according to the salary list. The Judicial Department is among 16 state agencies that are exempted from providing information for the state salary database, maintained by the Department of Administration.

The Nerve’s review of judicial travel records found that appellate, circuit and family court judges as a group traveled to more than a dozen in- and out-of-state locations in 2021. Organizations that hosted events during the year, which included a virtual conference, covered a total of $147,882 in registration, flight, hotel, food and court rules book costs, as well as unspecified “activity” costs, for 99 S.C. judges.

The total number of judges in The Nerve’s review represents 83% of the current number of full-time judges for those levels of court.

The covered travel expenses in 2021 were listed on an internal court form, which has to be filed annually with the Office of Court Administration, which Beatty oversees as the chief justice, under a heading labeled, “Nature of Gift, Bequest, Favor, or Loan.”

Of the 99 judges in The Nerve’s review, 40 reported collective paid-for expenses of at least $1,000, with 19, including Beatty, listing covered costs totaling $3,000 or more. The average was about $1,500.

Presented with The Nerve’s findings, two state lawmakers said they would generally support improving transparency in the Judicial Department.

“I’m just an old retired cop; I’m not an attorney,” said Rep. William Bailey, R-Horry, who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the former director of the North Myrtle Beach Public Safety Department. “But I can you tell you … all those things that deal with taxpayer dollars should be open.”

Said Sen. Penry Gustafson, R-Kershaw, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee: “If we want to strengthen public faith in our state government, it’s through transparency. That is the one thing I hear from constituents. They want to know what we’re doing.”

Tourist jurists

Of the total covered costs, $110,716, or nearly 75%, collectively was paid by the South Carolina Defense Trial Attorneys’ Association (SCDTAA) and the South Carolina Association for Justice (SCAJ), records show.

In 2021, the SCDTAA, whose lawyer members represent defendants in civil cases, held its four-day annual meeting in November at The Sanctuary at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, and a three-day summer conference in July at the upscale Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C, according to its website.

The SCDTAA on its website says its purpose is to “promote justice, professionalism and integrity in the civil justice system by bringing together attorneys dedicated to the defense of civil actions.” Last year, the organization recorded $75,979 in expenses “made on behalf of Judiciary,” according to its required filing, as a lobbyist principal, with the State Ethics Commission.

The SCAJ, made up of plaintiff attorneys, held a three-day annual convention in August 2021 at the Marriott Resort & Spa on Hilton Head Island, according to its website. The organization on its site says it fights “tirelessly to protect the rights of the individual; to seek justice through open and fair courtrooms; to resist unjust laws; to support policies that hold wrongdoers accountable; to strengthen the justice system through education and action; and to uphold the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity in the legal profession.”

State Ethics Commission records show that the SCAJ reported a total of $52,457 in expenditures “made on behalf of Judiciary” in 2021.

The Ethics Commission filings by the SCAJ and SCDTAA listed total covered expenditures for each judge who attended their respective conferences, though no details were provided about the event locations and costs. Both groups invited judges not included in The Nerve’s review, such as federal judges, according to written replies from the leaders of those organizations.

Each organization has one or more paid state lobbyists, Ethics Commission records show. The SCAJ, for example, made a total of nearly $105,000 in lobbyist payments last year.

Of the 99 judges in The Nerve’s review, 23 circuit or appellate judges attended SCAJ and SCDTAA conferences last year, while another 52 judges attended one of those events – mostly family court judges who went to the SCAJ convention.

Other tourist destinations where legal conferences were held last year included, according to judicial travel records and the host organizations’ websites:

*The South Carolina Public Defender Association’s annual conference at the Hilton Myrtle Beach Resort;

*The Injured Workers’ Advocates’ annual convention at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C.; and

*The Appellate Judges Education Institute’s annual summit at the Hyatt Regency Austin in Austin, Texas

Judicial silence, secrecy

State court rules require judges to avoid even the appearance of impropriety in both their professional and personal conduct, noting that public confidence in the judiciary is “eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges.”

Earlier this month, The Nerve asked Beatty to respond to unanswered questions sent in writing to the department in August related to judicial ethics and transparency. Beatty was asked:

*If there is at least the appearance of a conflict of interest for judges who attend events hosted by legal organizations whose members have or could have cases before those judges.

*Why judicial travel records and annual salaries aren’t posted on the Judicial Department’s website; and

*Why the S.C. Supreme Court doesn’t require state judges to publicly report their stock holdings, as required on federal judicial income-disclosure forms.

Beatty, whom S.C. lawmakers elected in 2016 as the chief justice, didn’t respond to The Nerve’s written questions. Under the state’s “unified” court system, the chief justice is the administrative head of the Judicial Department.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play a primary role in electing judges.

Regarding travel records, The Nerve this month attempted to survey appellate, circuit and family court judges statewide about whether they believed their attendance at SCAJ or SCDTAA conferences posed potential conflicts of interest, and whether they had earned any required continuing legal education credits at those events.

In addition, The Nerve sought responses from other state judges who, according to court records provided to The Nerve, didn’t list any conference costs covered last year.

None of the judges responded to the written questions. In a letter to The Nerve, Judicial Department spokeswoman Ginny Jones took issue with The Nerve’s attempts to contact judges.

“I understand that you are currently contacting judges individually, asking for information about their continuing legal education credits and why they did or did not attend certain conferences,” Jones said. “Let me clear: This is not public information, and Judicial Branch judges are in no way obligated to provide it to you.”

Jones in her letter also said although the department will “continue to respond to your requests for public information,” it will not “entertain your questions asking us for speculative answers or opinions.”

Jones last year told The Nerve in writing that the department’s position is that the S.C. Freedom of Information Act “does not apply to the Judicial Branch.”

The Nerve recently contacted Charles Geyh, an Indiana University law school professor who teaches and writes in the areas of judicial conduct and ethics, about ethical issues related to conference travel by S.C. judges. In a written response, Geyh said while he sees “no inherent problem with the host of an educational seminar reimbursing judges for the expenses of their attendance,” it “gets dicey when the host or a sponsor is a party in a case before the judge, or has a clear interest in the outcome of cases before the judge.”

He added that the “contours of a SC judge’s ethical responsibilities could be made a lot clearer if the (state) supreme court brought its code into the 21st century,” noting that South Carolina is among the “minority of jurisdictions that has not updated its code of judicial conduct following the ABA’s (American Bar Association) 2008 overhaul of its model code.”

Work or pleasure?

Beatty’s travel-disclosure form showed a total of $3,617 in covered costs in 2021 for events hosted by the SCAJ, SCDTAA, South Carolina Public Defender Association and the South Carolina Bar, the professional organization for the state’s approximately 11,000 licensed lawyers.

Beatty and other state judges were invited as guest speakers or panelists at a number of hosted events, according to the organizations’ meeting agendas.

Court records reviewed by The Nerve show that the SCAJ covered registration and room costs for judges who attended at its annual convention, while the SCDTAA also paid for meal and unspecified “activity” costs at its events.

At least nine judges took their spouses on conference trips, according to their travel-disclosure forms.

In a written statement provided to The Nerve on behalf of SCAJ President Jennifer Burnett, the organization said under advisory opinions issued by S.C. Supreme Court and South Carolina Bar committees, the SCAJ and SCDTAA are authorized to provide “complimentary registration fees and travel expenses” for judges attending “sponsored activities devoted to the improvement of the law or the legal system.”

Separately, The Nerve’s review found that the South Carolina Bar last year covered a total of $13,874 in registration fees for its January virtual convention and the cost of an updated court rules book for 78 appellate, circuit or family court judges.

Under state court rules, judges generally are required to annually complete at least 15 hours of approved continuing legal education (CLE). In a written response to The Nerve in August, David Ross, the South Carolina Bar’s executive director, said more than 20 CLE seminars are offered at the Bar’s yearly convention, allowing members the “opportunity to receive all of their annual mandatory continuing legal education credit.”

“The SC Bar Convention is the premier legal education annual event in our state, and it has long been a tradition to gather as many members – both lawyers and judges – at the same training and meeting to hear the latest updates in South Carolina law across a variety of practice areas,” he said.

All state appellate, circuit, family, masters-in-equity, probate and administrative law court judges are invited to the convention, “with the registration fee waived,” Ross said.

The SCAJ invites state and federal judges in South Carolina to its annual convention “in accordance with the state’s ethics rules and laws,” according to its written statement provided to The Nerve.

The statement noted that 12 hours of continuing legal education are offered during the convention, which permits “attorneys and judges alike to receive their mandatory continuing legal education credits for continued licensure with the South Carolina Bar.”

At the same time, the Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa, where last year’s and this year’s annual event was held, on its website says there are “endless opportunities for fun, from teeing off at one of three PGA golf courses to swimming on the beach or in our resort’s indoor and outdoor pools to unwinding at our hotel’s exquisite spa.”

SCDTAA President Graham Powell in an August written response to The Nerve said his organization offers “numerous continuing legal education seminars to our members” at its summer and annual meetings, noting it invites “as our guests all of the members of the state and federal judiciary in South Carolina.”

There also are plenty of opportunities for fun and relaxation at those events. For example, The Sanctuary at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where last year’s annual meeting was held, describes itself as a “casual but elegant building, reminiscent of a grand seaside mansion,” with indoor and outdoor pools, a “five-star” spa, and more than a dozen “restaurants, cafes and eateries across the resort,” according to its website.

Neither SCDTAA nor SCAJ officials answered The Nerve’s specific questions about why their respective organizations covered various event costs for judges but not for most other attendees.

The SCDTAA will hold this year’s annual meeting next month at The Ritz-Carlton resort on Amelia Island in Florida, according to the organization’s website.

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.

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