Lawmakers’ Delay Keeps Judge on Bench

December 2, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveInaction by Dorchester County’s legislative delegation could keep an embattled longtime judge on the bench for a year after his term expired.

Patrick Watts is the only master-in-equity judge in the state to be in “holdover” status and the first-ever “holdover” for that type of position, said Jane Shuler, chief attorney for the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

“This is definitely the first time this situation has occurred,” Shuler told The Nerve last week.

It’s essentially a period of legal limbo – not only for the judge in question, but also for challengers interested in the seat.

Watts, who makes $67,821 in the part-time job and who also is a private practice attorney in Summerville, did not respond to written and verbal requests last week by The Nerve for an interview.

The Nerve last week submitted written questions to all seven members of the Dorchester County legislative delegation who had a say in Watts’ renomination bid, but only one lawmaker – Republican Sen. Mike Rose of Summerville – responded.

“It’s irresponsible – the failure of our delegation to do its duty,” Rose told The Nerve.

Other than masters-in-equity, no other type of judge screened by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission is allowed under state law to be left in holdover status, Shuler said. County magistrates, who are nominated by their county’s senatorial delegation, can continue to serve after their terms expire, though the commission doesn’t screen them.

Critics of the holdover practice say it allows legislators to have undue influence over judges they elect.

Master-in-equity judges, who serve six-year terms, have the authority of circuit court judges but usually hear non-jury civil cases, mainly foreclosures. There are 21 masters-in-equity in the state serving counties with a population of at least 130,000.

Masters-in-equity must be found qualified by the 10-member state screening commission – made up of six lawmakers – before being nominated by a county’s delegation of state senators and representatives. The governor appoints judges from qualified nominees submitted by the delegation, and the Legislature approves any appointees in an election during session.

Watts, Dorchester County’s part-time magistrate since 1994, has been under fire since the S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled last December that he violated a Summerville woman’s constitutional rights by allowing his secretary to conduct a foreclosure hearing involving her home without any testimony. The ruling was issued after the state screening commission found him to be qualified.

The Nerve previously reported about the case in March and May.

Although the commission last fall found Watts and challenger Frederick Newton, a Dorchester County magistrate and Summerville attorney, to be qualified, the county’s seven-member legislative delegation never submitted either name to Gov. Mark Sanford for consideration, as required by state law (2-19-110).

That meant no election could be held in the General Assembly last session, and Watts began his holdover status after his term expired on June 30. He and Newton reapplied for the position and were scheduled to be screened by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission the week of Nov. 15, but the process once again was halted after Watts withdrew in October.

The Nerve submitted an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request in October to the commission for all documents relating to Watts’ reapplication. Shuler provided The Nerve with Watts’ Oct. 18 withdrawal letter but declined to release any other documents, citing state law (2-19-50) that guarantees confidentiality of records submitted to the commission that are not presented under oath at a public hearing.

Shuler last week said she likely will announce the re-opening of the application period for Watts’ seat on Feb. 3, the day after the latest round of judicial elections tentatively scheduled in the General Assembly. Screening hearings for applicants for Watts’ seat likely will be held in April, with an election in late May, though no firm dates have been set, she said.

It’s unclear under state law whether Watts could reapply yet again for his seat after withdrawing. The law dealing with incumbents who withdraw (2-19-80) says that “nothing prevents the (judicial screening) commission from including in its new nominations the names and qualifications of persons other than the incumbent judge it included in its previous nominations.”

Shuler declined to comment about whether Watts intends to reapply for his seat, or about the legislative delegation’s duties under state law, referring all questions to delegation members.

Besides Sen. Rose, the other delegation members who had a say in Watts’ renomination bid included Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester and the delegation chairwoman; House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; Reps. Annette Young, R-Dorchester and Patsy Knight, D-Dorchester; and Sens. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and John Matthews, D-Orangeburg.

Under state law, Harrell appoints five of the 10 Judicial Merit Selection Commission members.

In 2004, Harrell, Young, Grooms and Matthews signed a delegation letter supporting Watts’ nomination then, according to the governor’s office.

The Dorchester County delegation will have a new member next year: Republican Chris Murphy of Summerville was elected in November to replace Young, who earlier announced her retirement from the Legislature. Efforts last week by The Nerve to reach Murphy were unsuccessful.

Like Watts, Murphy, Rose and Horne are attorneys.

Rose earlier told The Nerve that besides the Dec. 21 Supreme Court ruling, he had questions about Watts’ handling of other foreclosure cases and attorney fees in foreclosure cases, though he declined to provide specifics.

“The governor’s lawyer and I each independently interviewed Watts for hours about allegations of misconduct by Watts that came to me from three independent sources,” Rose said in a written response for The Nerve’s story in May on Watts. “I announced I will not vote for Watts, and the governor’s staff has informed our delegation that the governor will not reappoint Watts if the delegation recommends him.”

Rose said then he was supporting Watts’ challenger, Newton, who did not respond to The Nerve’s requests last week for an interview.

Rose also said then that Horne had not responded to his request for a delegation meeting to nominate a candidate. Contacted last week, he said nothing has changed.

“By our delegation’s failure to take action – which is required by statute – Watts has remained more than six months in office than he would have (otherwise), and he will remain in office more than six months unless he resigns or is removed by the (S.C. Supreme Court),” Rose said.

It’s unknown if the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, an arm of the Supreme Court that investigates ethical complaints against judges and lawyers, is investigating Watts. Under state law, that’s secret unless formal ethical charges are issued or the Supreme Court imposes a public sanction.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.