HomeLearning Center2 Women, 1 Man Among Finalists for SC Supreme Court

2 Women, 1 Man Among Finalists for SC Supreme Court

Originally published by Jessica Holdman for South Carolina Daily Gazette

A pair of state Appeals Court judges and a Circuit Court judge are among finalists for South Carolina’s next Supreme Court justice.

A legislative panel that screens judicial candidates forwarded Blake Hewitt, of Conway; Jocelyn Newman, of Columbia; and Letitia Verdin, of Greenville, to the full Legislature for a vote next month. They were chosen from among six candidates vying to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Chief Justice Don Beatty.

Hewitt, a white male Appeals Court judge, was first elected to the bench in 2019 after years as an appellate lawyer. Newman, a Black female judge and the daughter of recently retired Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman, has spent eight years as a Circuit Court judge in Richland County. Verdin, a white female judge from the Upstate with more than 15 years of experience, has spent the past year on the state Court of Appeals.

The election by a joint General Assembly is scheduled for June 5.

South Carolina is one of only two states where the Legislature elects nearly all judges. Virginia is the other.

Who lawmakers choose will shape the look of the state’s highest court for some time. A seat isn’t likely to come available for more than four years. That’s when Justice John Kittredge, who will become chief justice this summer, ages out. (State law requires judges to retire from full-time work by Dec. 31 of the year they turn 72.)

Beatty, a former legislator from Spartanburg, is retiring when his term ends this summer, after he turns 72.

‘Bona fide conservatives’

The election of a new justice comes as South Carolina’s judiciary has been under intense scrutiny. The state high court’s recent decisions on laws banning abortions politicized a judicial selection process historically based on personal relationships and geography.

When the U.S. Supreme Court overthrew Roe v. Wade in June 2022, it left the state court to decide the legality of the state’s abortion laws. After the ruling, a law legislators passed in 2021 that banned abortions once an ultrasound detects cardiac activity temporarily took affect, prompting abortion providers to sue.

In a 3-2 decision in early January 2023, the state Supreme Court threw out the so-called “fetal heartbeat” law as violating the state constitutional protection from unreasonable invasions of privacy. The only woman on the court, Justice Kaye Hearn, wrote the majority opinion that was blasted by GOP lawmakers as judicial activism. It was her last opinion before she retired.

In the race to replace Hearn, two female judges ultimately dropped out before the Legislature elected Justice Gary Hill, the male judge who had the votes. Then in August, the country’s only all-male state Supreme Court upheld a tweaked version of the law that bans abortions around six weeks into pregnancy.

In selecting Hill, lawmakers had cited his reputation as a “strict constructionist,” meaning he interprets the literal meaning of statute when it was written. It’s the same label that soon-to-be Chief Justice Kittredge used to describe himself before he was unanimously elected in March as the judicial branch’s next leader.

South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith trumpeted the election of Kittredge during a tele-town hall Wednesday hosted by Americans For Prosperity, the conservative political group founded by the Koch Brothers.

“I’m proud to say we’ve elected for the first time, I believe, in modern history in South Carolina a chief justice who is a conservative — a well-known conservative,” Smith said.

With the exception of a one-year interim, South Carolina’s judicial branch has been led by a former House Democrat since 2000.

Chief Justice Jean Toal and Beatty were both initially elected from the House directly to the bench — back when that was still allowed — though in different decades: Toal to the high court in 1988 and Beatty to the Circuit Court in 1995. (Costa Pleicones became chief justice when Toal retired in December 2015 after turning 72, until he aged out a year later.)

Smith told listeners on the call that when the Legislature elects its new justice, he’s hopeful there will be five “true, bona fide conservatives” on the court.

“That really shows how we have turned this ship in South Carolina in trying to get a judiciary that doesn’t make laws but that interprets laws. So, that will be a huge win for us,” Smith said.

That deference to the Legislature was a theme in the latest Supreme Court candidates’ answers.

“Yes, we interpret statutes. Yes, we apply them, but we do so with the recognition that is the General Assembly’s prerogative to set public policy and the General Assembly’s actions get every presumption of constitutionality,” Hewitt said.

“Our purpose is to interpret the intent of the Legislature. We don’t make laws,” Newman said to questions. “The court often makes decisions to highlight certain deficiencies in legislation that has been passed. … But the judiciary should never overstep its bounds.”

“I understand I am not a policy maker. I am not a lawmaker, but an interpreter of the law, and I take that very seriously,” Verdin said.

Backlog

A second theme in questioning by the screening panel was related to the backlog of court cases across the Palmetto State.

Both Hewitt and Verdin serve on an Appeals Court committee trying to find solutions to the backlog at that level. Verdin said one area of success she’s noticed is in the use of technology and video proceedings to handle more administrative proceedings.

“Our legal profession is changing. I welcome those changes because change is inevitable,” she said.

Being behind on issuing orders is one area where Newman was dinged in her screening.

The Fifth Circuit of Richland and Kershaw counties, where Newman holds court, has seen a number of judicial retirements in the last couple years, and Newman has been left to handle the lions-share of the caseload. She’s also been without the aid of a clerk since December, she explained.

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