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SC lawmakers tackle judicial election changes, with help from Supreme Court justice

The Judicial Merit Selection Commission meets Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Columbia, S.C.
Russ McKinney
SC Public Radio
The Judicial Merit Selection Commission meets Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Columbia, S.C.

Will the S.C. Legislature change the way most judges are vetted and elected in South Carolina? A debate is raging in the Statehouse over how much influence legislators should have in who becomes a state judge.

The selection of state court judges by the General Assembly was front and center at the Statehouse this week.

A special committee that vets candidates for judgeships began the screening process of candidates, which the Legislature will elect early next year. At the same time, a special House committee began a review of the process that the state uses in selecting judges.

South Carolina Public Radio's Russ McKinney and Maayan Schechter have been following this story and discussed the latest this week:

RUSS MCKINNEY: The Legislature has started this process amid calls for changes. Do we think we'll see any changes this year?

MAAYAN SCHECHTER: That's a great question, and I think it still remains to be seen. I would never say never. But when you look at the fact that lawmakers are not in agreement right now about what exactly they want to do. There's so many recommendations and suggestions and ideas that have been floated out there. And then on top of that, next year is the second year of a two-year session, which means any bill that doesn't pass both chambers and get signed by the governor dies for the year because a new legislature will be elected next year. And so it makes it a little bit more difficult to take meatier legislation on such a controversial topic and get it across the finish line. So will there be debate? Absolutely. Will a bill cross the finish line? You know, again, never say never, but probably more likely that'll that'll happen in the next session.

MCKINNEY: So what brought us to this point at this moment?

SCHECHTER: So there are a number of factors. To start, the state Supreme Court's 3-2 January decision that overturned the previous six-week abortion ban. And, at that time, the court had one female justice, that was Kaye Hearn. She had to retire because of the state's 72-year age limit. And, in her place, lawmakers elected Gary Hill, which gave us an all-male Supreme Court. That court of course, months later, upheld a six-week ban, which is now law.

Another piece is the release of a convicted murderer from state prison, Jeriod Price, which was a culmination of a deal that was made behind closed doors between a lawyer-legislator, who sits on the Legislature's judicial vetting committee, a solicitor and a since-retired judge.

And, lastly, and I think this is important, public opinion about how judges are both vetted and elected, a responsibility of course that the Legislature has, has turned. And ultra-conservative lawmakers have found allies in that reform effort from Democrats, solicitors, sheriff's and even the attorney general.

MCKINNEY: This week, the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, the JMSC, began a couple of weeks worth of hearings over more than 80 judicial candidates, and they started with Justice John Kittredge, who's running unopposed for the next chief justice. Kittredge also testified in front of that special House committee created by House Speaker Murrell Smith to figure out what if any changes to the process should and can be made.

Here's a bit of what he told lawmakers:

"Now to the, I think, self-evident part, and this is not me, it's just simply things I've heard and I'm confident each one of you have heard this multiple times: allow the governor. the executive branch to appoint members to the JMSC," Kittredge said. "Giving the executive branch a voice in the selection process will go a long way in addressing the present debate."

S.C. Supreme Court Justice John Kittredge, who is running unopposed for the next chief justice, testifies Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in front of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission in Columbia, S.C.
Russ McKinney
S.C. Supreme Court Justice John Kittredge, who is running unopposed for the next chief justice, testifies Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in front of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission in Columbia, S.C.

MCKINNEY: Maayan, what changes do you think lawmakers are seriously considering?

SCHECHTER: Well, there are several ideas out there, ranging from removing lawmakers completely from the process, removing a three candidate cap that JMSC has, giving the governor appointment powers, giving the governor appointment powers to the JMSC, overhauling how the state picks magistrate judges since they're just appointed and approved by the governor and the Senate, respectively. There are a lot of recommendations, suggestions, ideas, but no one is necessarily in complete uniformity about what to do quite yet.

MCKINNEY: And I don't think completely removing lawmakers from the process is going to be part of it. Correct?

SCHECHTER: Right. And I don't hear lawmakers loving the idea of even removing themselves from the JMSC. Here's what one lawyer-legislator, who sits on JMSC, Lexington Republican Rep. Micah Caskey had to say:

"I think one of the problems in this discussion is the absence of information," Caskey said. "I would be remiss if I didn't observe that consistently I hear the loudest advocates for change be coming from the individuals who can't find the time to make it to JMSC hearings, who in fact have never sat through a JMSC hearing. ... The process is much more extended than certainly pay-for-play but bloggers would have to believe and even some elected officials would have you believe, because they skip over parts about the citizens committees. They skip over the part about the (S.C.) Bar's Judicial Qualifications Committee. They skip over the part about the invasive nature of the JMSC process."

And Justice Kittredge also made suggestions this week that I think lawmakers could get behind, such as mid-year surveys of judges, perhaps even giving the governor an appointment or two to the JMSC. But where I think there could be movement, maybe not next year, but maybe in the next legislative session, is tightening up the magistrate system. It appears the governor, who recently asked for more documentation when magistrate candidates come before him, and the House would agree to that at the very least. The Senate, on the other hand, which confirms magistrates, is another story.

Russ McKinney has 30 years of experience in radio news and public affairs. He is a former broadcast news reporter in Spartanburg, Columbia and Atlanta. He served as Press Secretary to former S.C. Governor Dick Riley for two terms, and for 20 years was the chief public affairs officer for the University of South Carolina.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) is a news reporter with South Carolina Public Radio and ETV. She worked at South Carolina newspapers for a decade, previously working as a reporter and then editor of The State’s S.C. State House and politics team, and as a reporter at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2013.