Judicial Income-Disclosure Forms Reveal Little Information

April 16, 2014

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Income DisclosureIf you’re going to experience the court system in South Carolina, chances are it will be in either magistrate or municipal court.

That’s where you’ll go to take care of traffic tickets or if you’re charged with a crime that carries a sentence of no more than 30 days in jail. Magistrate courts also handle civil cases involving damages less than $7,500.

There are approximately 600 magistrates and municipal judges statewide. More than 80 percent of the municipal judges and nearly half of the magistrates are classified as part-time employees, meaning they “regularly” work less than 40 hours a week, according to information provided to The Nerve by the state Office of Court Administration.

Given their part-time status, many magistrate and municipal court judges – also known as summary court judges – likely have outside jobs. But there’s no easy way right now for the public to find that out to determine whether those judges have any potential conflicts of interest.

Under state court rules, judges are supposed to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities.”

Tuesday was the deadline for judges statewide to submit their annual financial-disclosure forms to the Office of Court Administration. Those forms, however, don’t ask judges to list their public pay, and part-time judges aren’t required to list any outside income or gifts received during the previous year.

The Nerve earlier this month reviewed a number of forms submitted by part-time judges. In every case, the only information listed by the judge was his or her office address.

The Nerve this week asked state administrative court officials in writing whether they keep salary records for magistrates and municipal judges, who typically are paid by their respective counties or municipalities. No response was provided by publication of this story.

The Nerve also sent written questions to S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal – the administrative head of the state Judicial Department – asking her whether she would support changes to improve transparency in income disclosure by summary court judges. She did not reply by publication of this story.

The Judicial Department’s website lists no information about judicial salaries or other income sources.

Ironically, in an apparent first in recent state history, Toal and Justice Costa Pleicones voluntarily released their private sources of income to The Nerve in January during their election run in the General Assembly for the chief justice’s seat, which was won by Toal. South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges.

Judges in the “unified court system” who are elected by the General Assembly are exempted from the state ethics law requiring legislators and other elected officials to annually file income-disclosure statements, called statements of economic interests, with the State Ethics Commission. For those judges, their forms are required to be filed with the House and Senate Ethics committees, but only during judicial elections.

Those judges also submit more detailed financial disclosure statements with the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates judges for election by the Legislature, but the 10-member panel, which includes six lawmakers, can’t release those documents publicly if the records are not “presented under oath” during public screening hearings.

The Nerve left phone messages Tuesday with officers of the South Carolina Summary Court Judges Association seeking comment on income-disclosure issues but received no response. In South Carolina, magistrates are nominated by their respective county senatorial delegations, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Municipal courts are established by their respective municipal governing bodies.

The S.C Budget and Control Board’s online state salary database for state employees making $50,000 or more annually lists no information about any judges. That’s because state law exempts all S.C. judges and other judicial employees from oversight by the BCB’s Human Resources Division, agency spokeswoman Rebecca Griggs said Tuesday in a written response to The Nerve.

The State and (Charleston) Post and Courier newspapers maintain state and local government salary databases, including information about judges, based on information received from agencies under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Following is a list of judicial salaries, with the number of judges per court in parentheses, according to the newspaper databases:

  • Supreme Court (5): Toal, $148,350; other Supreme Court justices, $141,286;
  • Court of Appeals (9): Chief Judge John Few, $139,873; other Court of Appeals judges, $137,753;
  • Circuit Court (49): $134,221; and
  • Family Court (58): $130,689.

In Richland County, the annual pay for 13 magistrates ranges from $62,549 to $83,187 for Chief Magistrate Donald Simons, according to The State newspaper’s database. In comparison, Dana Turner, the chief administrative judge for the city of Columbia, makes $134,077 annually.

In Charleston County, the annual salaries for 12 magistrates range from $59,405 to $86,611 for Associate Chief Magistrate James Gosnell, according to the Post and Courier’s database.

Reach Brundrett @ (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.