S.C. Judges Routinely Offered Convention Freebies

February 3, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Coastal RetreatSouth Carolina’s three most prominent legal organizations each spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to bring Palmetto State judges to swank conventions, though the groups contend they’re not trying to influence the jurists.

A review by The Nerve of financial disclosure forms for 2012 – the most recently available – filed by judges with the state Office of Court Administration found that of 154 full- or part-time Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, circuit, master-in-equity and family court judges who submitted forms, 124, or 80 percent, reported taking trips to annual conventions sponsored by the South Carolina Bar, South Carolina Association for Justice (SCAJ) or South Carolina Defense Trial Attorneys’ Association (SCDTAA).

The listed value of registration, lodging, meals and activity costs in 2012 covered by the three organizations for the 124 judges totaled $159,686, The Nerve’s review found. The final total tab likely was larger, given, for example, that conference attendees included federal judges in South Carolina, other records show.

The Nerve obtained the state judges’ disclosure forms on Friday. The documents are available only upon request to the Office of Court Administration, which assists the chief justice in administering the state’s court system.

The Nerve initially reported last month that judicial financial-disclosure forms are largely kept hidden from public review, and that information about a judge’s private sources of income and investments typically is limited. The disclosure forms provided by the Office of Court Administration, for example, don’t require judges to report investment or rental income, or a spouse’s income.

In what is believed to be a first in recent memory, Chief Justice Jean Toal and Justice Costa Pleicones, who is running against Toal for her chief justice seat in Wednesday’s election in the General Assembly, agreed to The Nerve’s request to voluntarily release normally confidential financial information, including their investments, that they submitted to the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates judicial candidates for election. (To see their records, go to this Nerve story published last week.)

Contacted Saturday by The Nerve, John Few, chief judge of the nine-member S.C. Court of Appeals – the state’s second-highest court – said he would support putting judicial financial-disclosure forms online to promote transparency, adding the S.C. judiciary has been “moving in that direction.”

“I’m in favor of the government and the judiciary being open in what we do,” said Few, who served nearly 10 years as a circuit judge before becoming the Court of Appeals’ chief judge in 2010.

Few’s 2012 financial disclosure form submitted to the Office of Court Administration shows that he had registration, lodging or meal costs paid by various legal groups – including the South Carolina Bar, SCAJ and SCDTAA – for 11 events that year. The covered costs totaled $4,460.

Few said he is invited frequently to speak to legal groups. But he said just because an organization covers certain costs doesn’t mean that group has any influence over his decisions as a judge.

“It’s not an unimportant fact,” Few said, “but I don’t think it puts any pressure on people.”

Judicial ethical canons allow judges to attend law-related events paid for by legal groups, though they can’t participate in any outside activities that:

  • Cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge;
  • Demean the judicial office; or
  • Interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties.

Big Spender

Of the three legal groups in The Nerve’s review, the SCDTAA, made up of defense attorneys whose clients include large corporations, spent the most on judges in 2012 – $77,744. The organization’s annual convention was held Nov. 8-11, 2012, at The Sanctuary golf resort on Kiawah Island, which was home to the PGA Tournament that year; its annual summer meeting was held July 26-28, 2012, at the luxury Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C.

Like the South Carolina Bar and SCAJ, the SCDTAA is a registered lobbyist principal with the State Ethics Commission and is required to file reports twice a year on its expenditures. But there are no online commission records since 2009 that list expenditures for judges invited to SCDTAA conferences – in contrast to commission records from the other two legal groups.

The Nerve over the weekend attempted to interview Columbia attorney Curtis Ott, board president of the SCDTAA. Ott, a partner in the law firm of Gallivan, White & Boyd, on Sunday responded by email to an initial list of written questions from The Nerve, saying he wasn’t immediately available for a phone interview, but did not reply to follow-up written questions by publication of this story about his organization’s reports to the State Ethics Commission.

In his written response, Ott said the SCDTAA invites all state circuit and appellate judges, as well as S.C. federal circuit, district, magistrate and bankruptcy court judges. Of the 230 total attendees at the 2012 event, about 60 were judges, he said.

Convention registration fees, which include group meals and continuing legal education classes needed to help maintain participants’ law licenses, typically are waived for the invited judges, Ott said. In addition, the organization also covers lodging and “certain group activities,” he said.

The purpose of inviting judges to the annual convention, is to ‘’promote communications, share legal knowledge and improve civility between the bench and bar,” Ott said, adding, “We believe open communication improves the judicial system and benefits the public.”

Last year’s annual SCDTAA convention was held in November in Savannah, Ga.; the 2014 convention is scheduled for November at the Pinehurst, N.C., golf resort, home of the U.S. Open men’s and women’s championship golf tournaments scheduled for June, according to the resort’s website.

Judges on ‘Fixed Incomes’

The South Carolina Association for Justice, which represents plaintiffs’ attorneys, including personal-injury lawyers, meets annually at the Westin resort on Hilton Head Island. The Nerve’s review of financial disclosure forms provided by the Office of Court Administration found that at the Aug. 2-4, 2012, event, the SCAJ covered $42,673 in registration and lodging costs for state judges; State Ethics Commission records listed the total value of covered costs for 86 federal and state judges at $50,470.

Last August, the SCAJ covered $73,915 in costs for 105 federal and state judges who were invited to the annual convention, commission records show.

In an interview Saturday, Michael Gunn, the SCAJ chief directing officer and a registered lobbyist for the organization, said he doesn’t believe that judges who attend the annual conventions rule more favorably for the organization’s members.

“I think our judges are very qualified individually and adhere to the canons of ethics very seriously,” he said. “I can show you probably a 100 (judges) who will be with the people we represent, and probably a 100 who will be with the people who are against us.”

Gunn said the SCAJ typically offers to pay for three nights’ worth of lodging for judges, noting the “entire judiciary,” is invited, though some judges choose to stay fewer nights.

Asked why the SCAJ offers to cover lodging costs for judges and not most other conference attendees, Gunn replied: “All judges are on a fixed income to start. … If there is a family of five, and they’ve got three kids in college, they’re struggling like a middle-class family.”

Gunn said judges often bring their families to the annual conventions, adding, “It’s a very family-oriented event, and I think that’s what draws them.”

Chief Justice Toal’s current base annual salary is $148,350; the court’s other four justices receive $141,286 yearly, according to a state salary database maintained by The State newspaper. As chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Few’s annual salary is $139,873; the other eight judges on that court make $137,753 annually. The yearly salaries for circuit and family judges are $134,221 and $130,689, respectively.

The South Carolina Bar is different from the SCAJ and SCDTAA in that membership is mandatory, which means all practicing attorneys in the state are required to join. The Nerve’s review of financial disclosure forms provided by the Office of Court Administration found that the Bar covered $39,268 in registration, lodging or meal costs for state judges who attended the Jan. 19-22, 2012, annual conference at the Columbia Metropolitan Center.

State Ethics Commission records show the Bar covered $56,188 in costs for 137 judges for that event and $62,369 in costs for 129 judges who attended last year’s conference at the Myrtle Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.

Bob Wells, the Bar’s executive director, told The Nerve on Saturday that the Bar provides one night of lodging for judges at its annual convention. He said having judges at those events is “an attraction” for lawyers who attend.

“It’s good for the profession to have judges and lawyers talk to one another,” Wells said.

This year’s annual Bar convention was held last month at The Sanctuary golf resort on Kiawah Island.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.