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Sole Black candidate withdraws from SC Supreme Court race

Judge Jocelyn Newman, a candidate for the S.C. Supreme Court, testifies before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission on May 9, 2024.
Maayan Schechter
Judge Jocelyn Newman, a candidate for the S.C. Supreme Court, testifies before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission on May 9, 2024.

There are two candidates for the S.C. Supreme Court vacancy left in the race: Judges Blake Hewitt and Letitia Verdin. Both sit on the state Court of Appeals.

South Carolina's all-male supreme court is likely to soon be all white after the sole Black candidate withdrew from the race on Tuesday.

Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman, 46, sent a written withdrawal about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, confirmed Erin Crawford, chief counsel for the JMSC.

The JMSC vets and nominates judicial candidates to the 170-member General Assembly for final consideration. South Carolina is one of two states where lawmakers, not voters, elect most judges.

Candidates could solicit support from lawmakers as of last week. To win, candidates need the majority of the Legislature's support.

The Legislature returns to Columbia June 5 to hold the S.C. Supreme Court election.

With Columbia's Newman out, the race is now whittled down to two candidates: Judges Blake Hewitt, of Conway, and Letitia Verdin, of Greenville. Hewitt, 45, and 53-year-old Verdin, seen as the race frontrunner, both serve on the state's Court of Appeals.

Of the three original candidates, Newman was the only candidate of color in the race.

Newman is the daughter of retired Judge Clifton Newman, who presided over Alex Murdaugh's six-week double-murder trial.

At her JMSC hearing earlier this month, Newman faced questions about case numbers and backlogs in Richland County. As a Richland County judge, Newman presides not only over local matters, but at times controversial cases dealing with state agencies and politics.

In 2022, for example, she ruled that a state law which offered death row inmates the option to die by firing squad or electrocution unconstitutional.

Asked at her hearing why she wanted to serve on the Supreme Court, Newman told the 10-member committee that it was an "opportunity to further my career and, as I said earlier, to serve in a different way."

"I am not someone who ever wants to remain complacent," she said. "I like to grow and change and learn, and so I think that now is the time for me to go on and serve the state in a different way. My father always talks about meeting the moment when there is an opportunity, met with preparation, and I am prepared to meet the moment."

South Carolina's Supreme Court is the only all-male supreme court in the country.

Early last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature elected now-Justice Gary Hill, a well-liked and respected judge, to the bench. He succeeded former Justice Kaye Hearn, the lone woman on the high court who was required to retire because of the state's mandatory retirement age for judges at 72.

Just before Hearn's retirement, she wrote the majority opinion in the court's 3-2 decision striking down the state's then-six-week abortion ban. Months later, with Hill now on the bench, the court upheld the state's current six-week abortion ban.

Now, Chief Justice Donald Beatty, the only Black justice on the court, will retire this year also because of the state's required retirement age.

To succeed him, lawmakers elected incoming Supreme Court Chief Justice John Kittredge.

South Carolina would not be the only high court in the country without a justice who identifies as a person of color.

Eighteen other states do not have a supreme court with a person of color, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which in part studies diversity in supreme courts.

That number includes 12 states where people of color make up at least 20% of the state's population. African Americans make up more than 26% of South Carolina's population.

There are currently no Black justices in 25 states, according to the Brennan Center's latest diversity report.

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.