House member quit suddenly last year; now a judicial candidate. Coincidence?

July 27, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

What a difference a year can make – especially if you’re a state lawmaker.

In unexpectedly resigning his longtime House seat last July after winning the Republican primary, Alan Clemmons, a Myrtle Beach attorney, said in an affidavit to the State Election Commission that he was withdrawing from the general election because he was representing new legal clients who will “require a large investment of my time and focus.”

Clemmons, who was first elected to the House in 2002, officially resigned his House seat on July 17, 2020. As of last Wednesday – slightly more than a year later – he became a candidate for the Horry County master-in-equity judge’s seat, state Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) records show.

As an ex-lawmaker, Clemmons has a distinct advantage in running for a judgeship.

Master-in-equity candidates are qualified by the legislatively controlled JMSC, nominated by the county legislative delegation and confirmed by the full Legislature. Three of the six lawmakers on the 10-member JMSC are part of the Horry County delegation, which included Clemmons as of last year.

Clemmons was the JMSC chairman in 2014, as The Nerve previously reported.

State law requires ex-lawmakers who want to become judges to wait at least a year before being elected to judicial seats. Asked Monday by The Nerve if he resigned his House seat to run for the master-in-equity judgeship, Clemmons replied only, “I really have no comments on my application for master-in-equity for Horry County.”

The Nerve on Monday asked JMSC chief attorney Erin Crawford for a copy of Clemmons’ application for the judicial seat, but was informed that under state law, the document must remain secret “until after the public (screening) hearing.”

Crawford confirmed that current Horry County master-in-equity Cynthia Graham Howe is not running for another six-year term. Howe makes $188,873 annually, according to Horry County spokeswoman Kelly Moore.

The Nerve previously has reported about the secrecy surrounding the judicial screening process.

Master-in-equity judges have the same authority as circuit judges in non-jury civil cases, typically hearing foreclosure and other real estate cases. Clemmons’ law firm handles real estate and homeowners association cases among its “main areas of law,” according to its website.

Clemmons noted in his affidavit last year to the State Election Commission that he is the sole owner and managing member of his law firm.

As The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out, county legislative delegations exert considerable control in their home counties, including over the courts.

Earlier this year, for example, The Nerve revealed that Shannon Phillips, an attorney in Sen. Scott Talley’s law firm, was confirmed by the Legislature as Spartanburg County’s new master-in-equity judge – less than three months after that county’s delegation, of which Talley, R-Spartanburg, is a member, quietly nominated her.

In 2019, The Nerve revealed that one senator in 12 counties controls the appointments of that county’s magistrates.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their state legislatures play primary roles in selecting judges. Master-in-equity judges in the Palmetto State are chosen through a different process compared to other types of courts.

The JMSC first screens and decides which master-in-equity candidates to qualify. Under state law, the JMSC can qualify no more than three candidates for a seat; Clemmons is one of three candidates for the Horry County seat, JMSC records show.

The state House speaker appoints five members of the JMSC; three members are selected by the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, and two are appointed by the Senate president. Attorney-Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, is the current Judiciary Committee chairman and a member of the 15-member Horry County delegation, which is chaired by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry.

The other two JMSC members who are part of the Horry County delegation are Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg, and Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Horry, both of whom are attorneys.

By law, county legislative delegations recommend master-in-equity candidates qualified by the JMSC to the governor, who decides whether to accept a delegation’s nomination – typically approved after routine background checks. The full Legislature usually confirms candidates appointed by the governor.

Clemmons is among 64 candidates seeking 48 judicial seats in next year’s legislative elections, JMSC records show. The 170-member Legislature will elect a new chief judge of the Court of Appeals – the state’s second-highest court – with the planned retirement this year of James Lockemy, a former House member from Dillon. Court of Appeals judge Bruce Williams of Columbia is the only candidate for the chief judge’s seat.

S.C. Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn of Conway, who was first elected to the state’s top court in 2009 and is the wife of former state Rep. George Hearn, is running unopposed for a 10-year term. Also running unopposed for new terms are 2nd Circuit judge Courtney Pope of Aiken – daughter of S.C. Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken – and Administrative Law Court (ALC) judge Milton Kimpson of Columbia, brother of state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, records show.

The Nerve previously reported about judge Pope’s and Kimpson’s legislative ties.

Former state Rep. Jenny Horne of Summerville, who served from 2008-2016, is among three candidates for a 1st Circuit family court seat. She was a candidate for another family court seat in 2019 but later withdrew from that race, as The Nerve reported then.

Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges serve six-year terms, while full terms for ALC judges run for five years.

Typically, elections for most judicial seats are uncontested, particularly if incumbents are seeking new terms. And even when there are multiple qualified candidates for a seat, all but one usually drop out before the election after tallying lawmakers’ likely votes beforehand.

Screening hearings for the latest group of judicial candidates are scheduled for November. Elections during a joint session of the Legislature tentatively are set for next Feb. 2, though lawmakers likely will vote separately on master-in-equity candidates given the different selection process for them.

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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