HomeLearning CenterMagistrates Are the Weakest Link in SC Judicial System

Magistrates Are the Weakest Link in SC Judicial System

Originally published by the Post and Courier

The problem with the way the Legislature elects upper-court judges is that the governor has no say, and the process has undermined public confidence in our judiciary by allowing lawyer-legislators to abuse their extensive influence to the advantage of themselves and their clients.

When it comes to the only judges most South Carolinians will ever encounter, magistrates, the problem is much larger, and more complex: On paper, the governor has the most say; in reality he has practically none, and many magistrates are forced to essentially work at will for their local senators. Moreover, it’s not uncommon to find magistrates who don’t understand the law and don’t accept (or even understand) the concepts of conflicts of interest or basic fairness.

That’s why it was exciting to see two provisions in the House’s judicial-selection-reform proposal that could eliminate several of those problems.

The bulk of H.5170 deals with the Judicial Merit Selection Commission that screens candidates for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Circuit, Family and Administrative Law courts, in much the same way as the similarly encouraging yet insufficient S.1046 that the Senate passed on Tuesday. But the bill sponsored by House Speaker Murrell Smith, his leadership team and the members of the ad hoc committee that reviewed the judicial selection process also creates a vetting process for magistrates similar to the one for higher-level judges. Even more significantly, it ends senators’ ability to keep magistrates on a short leash.

One provision would turn the commissioners selected by the governor and the Senate into a screening panel for magistrates, which would run these lower-court judges through the same review process that other judges have undergone for decades. This would institutionalize and broaden a smart procedure Gov. Henry McMaster implemented last year to conduct his own vetting of the people local senators ask him to appoint, which means it would endure beyond his tenure.

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