Lawyer-lawmakers largely control who becomes a judge in SC. Here’s their latest power play

February 21, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Ten S.C. House members who are lawyers are pushing legislation to create two circuit and two family court seats – and several of the bill’s co-sponsors would play large roles in who gets nominated to those positions.

The lead sponsor of the bill is House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, an attorney who controls half of the appointments to the 10-member committee that nominates judges for election in the Legislature. The bill was introduced on Jan. 21 and overwhelmingly passed the full House last week.

Yet neither S.C. Supreme Court chief justice Donald Beatty, who heads the state Judicial Department, nor Gov. Henry McMaster requested the additional judges in their formal budget proposals for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Ten of the House bill’s 16 sponsors are lawyers. Besides Lucas, they include:

  • Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, chairman of the House Ways and Means and Ethics committees, and vice-chairman of the judicial nominating committee, known as the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC);
  • House minority leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who sits on the JMSC and Ways and Means;
  • Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which amended and passed the bill on Feb. 5, just over two weeks after it was introduced;
  • House speaker pro tempore Tommy Pope, R-York;
  • David Weeks, D-Sumter, the Ethics Committee vice-chairman and a Ways and Means member;
  • Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, a Ways and Means member;
  • Russell Fry, R-Horry, a House Judiciary member;
  • Rosalyn Henderson-Myers, D-Spartanburg; and
  • Chris Hart, D-Richland

The bill’s other co-sponsors are House majority leader Gary Simrill, R-York; and Reps. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland; Cal Forrest, R-Saluda; Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg; Bill Hixon, R-Aiken; and Brandon Newton, R-Lancaster.

The Ways and Means Committee on Thursday passed a $32.3 billion state budget plan for fiscal 2020-21, including $2.1 million for the four additional judges and related startup costs. The committee’s proposed total Judicial Department budget is $111.5 million – an 8.6% increase over this fiscal year and a nearly 57% hike since fiscal 2017, state budget records show.

The Ways and Means budget version also would give another $10 million to the Judicial Department for dozens of additional court personnel, which Beatty sought in his budget request. McMaster’s state budget version contains no money for additional judges or court personnel.

Lawmakers last year gave judges a 33% base pay hike proposed by Beatty, as The Nerve previously reported. Annual salaries currently range from $183,237 for family court judges to $208,000 for Beatty.

The House bill, which passed the full House on Feb. 13 by a vote of 105-5, is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, a lawyer who is chairman of the JMSC and controls three of its appointments. Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, controls two appointments to the 10-member JMSC, which by law must include six legislators.

Under state law, the Legislature can elect only family, circuit and appellate court candidates nominated by the JMSC. South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges.

The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out lawmakers’ control over the judiciary. For example, The Nerve in July revealed, following the selection of ex-House member Mike Pitts as a Laurens County magistrate, that one senator in 12 of the state’s 46 counties controls all of the magistrate appointments in those counties.

In 2018, lawmakers elected Rep. McCoy’s wife and ex-Rep. Walt McLeod’s son to circuit court seats. And legislators last year elected the daughter of Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, as a circuit court judge.

The bill that passed the House last week would increase the state’s total number of circuit judges from 49 to 51 and the number of family court judges from 60 to 62. It would not allow the JMSC to begin the nominating process for the new seats until additional funding has been given final approval.

All six legislative members of the JMSC are lawyers. There are 34 attorney-lawmakers in the House and 19 lawyer-legislators in the Senate; together, they make up 31% of the 170-member General Assembly.

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.

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