Lawmakers Learn of Complaints Just Before Vote

May 26, 2016

Inside Insight

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As always, members elected the judges they liked best

On Wednesday, a joint session of the General Assembly elected judges for the state Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, Circuit Court, Family Court, and Public Service Commission.

South Carolina, as readers of this website know, is virtually unique among American states in empowering its state lawmakers to unilaterally elect judges. The governor plays no part in the process, and the winners of these judicial “elections,” in which the only voters are lawmakers, are precisely those who’ve most skillfully cultivated favor and rapport with lawmakers.

Unlike the arrangement painstakingly devised by the Founding Fathers in the U.S. constitution, South Carolina’s is a crackpot system that allows one branch of government to dominate another.

The system’s deficiencies were on display yesterday.

Most of the candidates were unopposed, their challengers having (as is typical) dropped out prior to the election. Those candidates were all elected by acclamation with the typical ovation following, although some House members tried unsuccessfully to a get roll call vote for the Supreme Court race.

The only seat with opposition was for Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals. Sen. Larry Martin, the chairman of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) – that’s the legislatively dominated commission that screens judicial candidates – informed the joint assembly that the Commission had received two affidavits last week alleging both legal and ethical violations by one of the candidates, Judge James E. Lockemy. The commissioners decided they did not have jurisdiction to investigate since their report had already been finalized.

Sen. Martin moved to postpone the election for that seat and allow the JMSC to investigate the allegations and if necessary submit a new report to the General Assembly. That motion was tabled on a voice vote, but Rep. Mike Pitts then moved to reject the entire slate of candidates. Rep. Todd Rutherford moved to table that motion, and Lt. Gov. McMaster finally recognized and granted calls for a roll call vote. Pitts’ motion was tabled 114-41. Lockemy was then elected 121-20, also with a roll call vote.

One other oddity: Judge Lockemy’s opponent, Judge Paula Thomas, dropped out before the vote, but House members had not received their email notification of her departure and only heard about it when Sen. Martin explained the situation during the election. She was, however, in the gallery when the vote took place.

Outstanding ethics complaints have rarely if ever stood in the legislature’s way when members prefer one candidate over another. And so in the end, they refused even to postpone the vote on Judge Lockemy.

Why? Presumably because they just liked him better.