HomeLearning CenterSC Judicial Elections to Begin This Week. Here’s What’s Changed

SC Judicial Elections to Begin This Week. Here’s What’s Changed

Originally published by Javon Harris for The State

Following a blockade — raised in protest for judicial reform — lawmakers are poised to hold judicial elections, beginning this week, now that a judicial reform bill has reached the Senate floor.

“This bill makes substantial strides in cleaning up the judicial election process,” state Sen. Wes Climer, R-York, said. “It remains to be seen whether senators will listen to their constituents who want to clean up this process, or the handful of lawyer-legislators who profit from abusing this broken process.”

Ongoing concerns have been raised by numerous state officials — and the public — about the transparency and perception of trustworthiness of the judiciary, and particularly concerns about what level of influence is held by lawyer-legislators who hold power over screening judges at the Judicial Merit Selection Committee.

S. 1046, sponsored by state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, would reduce the number of JMSC members from 10 to nine, and, for the first time, give the governor a voice in determining the body’s makeup. Specifically, the governor would appoint two members to the commission, while the Senate president and House speaker would appoint one each.

In addition, one member would be appointed by the chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, one member by the South Carolina Commission on Prosecution Coordination upon the recommendation of the sixteen circuit solicitors, one member by the Commission on Indigent Defense upon the recommendation of the sixteen circuit public defenders, and one member appointed by the South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice. That appointment must be a former state or federal member of the bench.

Notwithstanding the chief justice’s appointee, all members must be in good standing with the South Carolina Bar. Active solicitors, public defenders and lawyer-legislators would be prohibited from serving on the JMSC.

“I’m not saying this is true, but there is a perception that lawyer-legislators leverage their position to have a relationship with (judges) that’s different from other lawyers,” state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, said. “I don’t need another lawyer-legislator pre-digesting my choices on judgeships.”

In addition to removing the three candidate cap, the bill would prevent family of any JMSC member from seeking election. And no sitting member of the General Assembly would be permitted to run for judge until at least two years after leaving office.

“If 10 people apply and they’re all qualified, report all 10 out,” Harpootlian said of the cap removal.

In a bipartisan effort, several state senators, including Climer and Harpootlian, vowed to halt elections short of a bill addressing judicial reform. Namely, the removal of lawyer-legislators from the JMSC — a 10-member body charged with considering judicial candidates’ qualifications. Their decision to do so resulted in a backlash from House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who, in turn, was rebuked by Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee.

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