MY LAST NERVE: Judicial Election Reminds Us Just How Lazy Some Lawmakers Are

February 6, 2015

Inside Insight

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House and Senate met in a joint session

THEY’LL TAKE THE POWER ALL DAY LONG.
BUT THE RESPONSIBILITY? NAH.

South Carolina a legislative state – everybody knows that. Our lawmakers – especially a select few legislative leaders – exercise vast powers over the state’s K-12 public education system, the higher education system, the transportation and infrastructure system, most of the executive branch, and the judiciary.

If you need proof, take a look. If you need more proof, consider what happened on Wednesday.

The House and Senate met in a joint session for the election of judges and university trustees. Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee) presented the slate of candidates for each trustee seat. He did this in his capacity as chairman of the Committee to Screen Candidates for State Colleges and Universities – an eight-member committee of lawmakers charged with examining the qualifications of candidates whenever the General Assembly is to hold an election in joint session. Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens) nominated the candidates in his capacity as chairman of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), the ten-member committee empowered to decide which judicial candidates the General Assembly can vote on. Six members of the JMSC are legislators; all are appointed by legislators.

Last Thursday, Sen. Chip Campsen (R-Charleston) proposed an amendment to the omnibus Senate ethics bill that would lengthen the period after which the JMSC releases its report of candidate qualifications and the time at which candidates can seek a lawmaker’s pledge. In explaining the amendment, Campsen faced an interesting line of questioning from Sen. John Scott (D-Richland). Scott asked how may members of the body Sen. Campsen thought actually read that report. The additional time the amendment permitted, he said, would only delay the process. He further added that members vote for the candidate they either know or the candidate other members of the body know.

I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing: a state senator flatly admitting he doesn’t take the time to read the reports on judicial candidates. As flawed as the judicial system is, and even the JMSC, it at least provides lawmakers with the information they need to make quasi-informed decisions about the candidates. But – if Senator Scott is right, and I’m sure he is – many of them just don’t bother to use it.

I’m not sure why I’m surprised. South Carolina lawmakers, although they can always be counted on to take power over any and all areas of state government, frequently don’t want the responsibility that comes with that power.

Prime example: the passage of last year’s Department of Administration bill. Lawmakers argued that the bill was shifting a great deal of power to the executive branch. It didn’t, but leave that aside for a minute.  Therefore, they argued, the legislature needed additional oversight over the executive branch. So they added a provision to the bill requiring them to investigate executive branch agencies.

But when it came time to actually carry out that responsibility, a) the House wound up creating a special new standing committee to do the job, since it would have been too much work for the standing committee that already had jurisdiction, and b) the Senate in effect passed the job along to Senate staff.

Lawmakers shouldn’t have this vast unchecked power over our state’s judicial branch. But they do. And since they do, the least they could do is take their responsibility seriously enough to do the job properly. It makes me wonder if lawmakers really want the power they have – or if they just don’t want anyone else to have it.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization