Lawyer-lawmakers play large role in electing S.C. judges

February 16, 2018

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

south carolina judicial department, judiciary

By RICK BRUNDRETT

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty is a former state House member. So is James Lockemy, chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals, the state’s second-highest court.

The road from the State House to the court house historically has been an easy one, as The Nerve has previously reported. Last week, the Legislature, which has 51 lawyer-lawmakers, or 30 percent of the 170-member body, continued their tradition of nepotism in the latest round of judicial elections.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges. And lawyer-legislators exert considerable control or influence over the process in the Palmetto State.

Lisa Collins, the 6th Judicial Circuit’s chief deputy solicitor in Lancaster and an attorney for 31 years, says she experienced that legislative pressure first-hand. A Rock Hill resident, Collins lost her bid in a rare contested race last week for a circuit court seat in the 16th Judicial Circuit, which covers York and Union counties.

Several hours after losing her election to challenger William McKinnon by a lopsided 134-21 vote, Collins told The Nerve that the “pressure was very intense to withdraw” before the election. She said “several” legislators were “pressuring me” to drop out, though she declined to name them.

Collins said before the election, she had about 60 lawmakers who had committed votes to her, adding there is an “intense dislike” in the Legislature for recorded votes in judicial elections.

Asked why, she replied, “I’ve been told by some of them that for the attorney-legislators, it’s a very uncomfortable position for them to have to vote publicly for a judge that they might appear in front of.”

Votes were recorded in Collins’ race. Among the lawyer-lawmakers, there were three votes for her and 43 for McKinnon.

Under state law, the Legislature can vote on no more than three candidates for a judicial seat. Typically, candidates who believe they don’t have enough votes drop out before their election, leaving a sole candidate who is elected on a voice vote in a joint session of the General Assembly.

As customary, challengers withdrew in the Feb. 7 election of two new circuit court judges – Jennifer McCoy, a Charleston County magistrate and wife of Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston and an attorney; and Walt McLeod IV, the son of former Democratic House member and lawyer Walt McLeod of Newberry County.

There are no laws banning lawmaker’s relatives for running for judgeships filled by the Legislature. In 2015, for example, the Legislature elected attorney Bill Funderburk, the husband of Democratic state Rep. Laurie Funderburk of Kershaw County, also a lawyer, to an Administrative Law Court seat, rejecting a 16-year incumbent.

Lawyer-legislators can run for court seats controlled by the General Assembly just one year after leaving office, under state law.

McCoy and McLeod were screened and nominated by a 10-member committee called the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. By law, six of the members must be lawmakers, and currently, all six are attorneys:  Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry and the current commission chairman; Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and the commission vice-chairman; Sens. Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg, and Tom Young, R-Aiken; and Reps. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, and Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.

Lawmakers elected Murphy’s wife, Maite Murphy, to a circuit court seat in 2013.

The other four members of the 10-member committee also are attorneys, including former state senator Wes Hayes, R-York.

Two of the three lawmakers who control the appointments to the judicial screening commission are lawyers: House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who appoints all five of the commission’s House members; and Rankin, who appoints three senators as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. Senate president pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and the Senate’s most powerful lawmaker, appoints the other two Senate members.

For Collins, who fell 57 votes short of the minimum 78 votes needed to win her judicial election last week, said she wanted a recorded vote even though she knew she would likely lose. In contrast, she said she withdrew from another judicial race in 2000, noting she did so because her two challengers were more qualified.

“The reason I took it to a public vote was because I wanted the citizens to know which legislators supported a female candidate who has twice the experience of her male opponent,” Collins said.

“They (lawmakers) were punishing me for taking it to a pubic vote, and I think it’s a shame,” she continued. “Whether it’s a piece of legislation, or for a judicial candidate, or for any election (in the Legislature), I think the citizens deserve to know how their representatives voted.”

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. 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 always free to reprint and repost. We only ask that you credit The Nerve.