Gov. McMaster wants more financial and background information from magistrates
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's governor is requiring candidates nominated to be lower-level judges in South Carolina to submit the same kind of financial and background information as other statewide appointments.
In a letter to senators this week, Gov. Henry McMaster said he is requiring an application that includes asking familiarity about legal issues and the candidate's sentencing philosophy.
Magistrates are the lowest level in the state court system, but handle the most business. They issue search and arrest warrants, set bail, hear criminal cases where the punishments are fines less than $500 or 30 days in jail, civil matters where less than $7,500 is in dispute and issue temporary and emergency restraining orders.
Senators from each county nominate magistrates, and in recent administrations the governor has approved them without question.
“I am confident that we can enhance the caliber of our State’s magistrates, while also simultaneously advancing public safety and restoring the public’s faith in this critical component of our judiciary,” McMaster wrote in his letter Monday.
In the past several years, the state Supreme Court has reprimanded magistrates for cursing at lawyers and court personnel, failing to come to work and failing to conduct timely hearings.
In 2021, Chief Justice Don Beatty issued an order reminding magistrates of their full-time job.
“IT IS ORDERED that all full-time magistrates shall spend at least 40 hours per week in the performance of their official judicial duties,” Beatty wrote.
Candidates nominated to be one of the more than 300 magistrates in South Carolina will need to reveal their employment history, business affiliations, financial assets and liabilities. They will need to disclose their political contributions and their social media accounts for a background check. They will be asked if they have been sued, accused of discrimination or faced discipline or ethical violations.
The candidates will need to reveal how long they have known the senator nominating them and have five letters of recommendation.
Without a completed application, McMaster said he won't consider the appointments.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said he welcomes McMaster's revised application.
“I think we need a more thorough vetting process for magistrates,” the Republican from Edgefield said.
Just over a quarter of magistrates in South Carolina have law degrees and McMaster said the new requirements should help assure that even those judges who aren't attorneys have a basic knowledge of the law.
“I continue to believe that most, if not all, county magistrates should be attorneys, but at a minimum, lay magistrates should receive more job-specific training than the State requires for numerous vocations, such as auctioneers, cosmetologists, massage therapists, and nail technicians,” McMaster wrote.