HomeLearning CenterSC senators regularly leave judges they control in limbo; 39 are waiting on new terms.

SC senators regularly leave judges they control in limbo; 39 are waiting on new terms.

Originally published by Jessica Holdman for SC Daily Gazette

More than one of every 10 county judges in South Carolina who answer to their local senator remain on the bench long after their terms expired. Two have been kept in what amounts to a temporary status for two decades.

Gov. Henry McMaster wants to see it stop.

Most of these judges handpicked by their senator, called magistrates, aren’t attorneys. Yet, they handle a large caseload. They’re responsible for setting bail, issuing warrants and deciding low-dollar civil disputes. They also preside over trials and decide sentences for crimes punishable by 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.

When McMaster signed a law last week that adjusts the Legislature’s selection process for most other judges in the state, he called for further reforms.

At a minimum, he said, senators need to end the widespread practice of leaving magistrates in what’s known as “holdover” status indefinitely without officially re-recommending them for their next four-year term. Magistrates who aren’t officially approved for a new term could be fired by their senator at any point.

Of the state’s 302 magistrates, 39 are in holdover status. All but one are over a year overdue.

“You end up having these judges who control very important functions serving terms that can be ended in days and that’s not a good situation,” McMaster said.

Magistrates are technically appointed by the governor. But they’re actually chosen by their local senators, who control when and if they’re replaced. Some senators who are lawyers may even regularly appear before these judges in magistrate’s court.

McMaster said if senators don’t end the practice and give him recommendations for new terms, he could make nominations on his own without their input.

But such action could simply result in a standoff, since the governor would be making nominations to the senators. By law, magistrates are confirmed by the Senate.

Spartanburg County currently has the most magistrates in holdover, with six judges waiting for re-appointment, followed by Union County, with five.

Oconee County has four. Two of them were last confirmed over 20 years ago: Judge William Derrick and Chief Magistrate Blake Andrew, who have been in holdover since their terms expired in April 2006.

As the only senator whose district covers the Upstate county, Senate President Thomas Alexander controls their seats.

There has been some improvement. When McMaster sent a letter admonishing senators last October, there were 70 magistrates in holdover. Spartanburg County alone had 20 of those, 14 of which have now been reviewed and reappointed.

Most of the judges in holdover contacted by the SC Daily Gazette did not respond. One declined to comment.

But Alexander said the records of the long-serving magistrates in his district speak for themselves.

“They do a fine job, and I appreciate their service,” the Walhalla Republican said.

Alexander said he values McMaster’s input but said he does not share the governor’s opinion that these holdover magistrates are serving in a state of constant worry they’ll lose their jobs. Alexander declined to comment on the warning from the governor’s office that McMaster may take nominations into his own hands.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who is also an attorney, said he disagrees with the practice of leaving magistrates in holdover. But he does not think senators’ motivations for doing so are nefarious.

“The reason in many instances that magistrates are left in holdover is because a senator is happy with the job they’re doing and does not want a rejection from the governor,” he told the SC Daily Gazette.

The Columbia Democrat, who was recently defeated in a Democratic primary, said some senators don’t want magistrates in their districts to have to go through drawn-out reviews conducted by the governor’s office. These include criminal background checks and financial audits.

However, Harpootlian still disagreed with the “archaic” position.

“Every other judge in the state goes through some sort of periodic review,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good for the system, and I certainly don’t think it’s healthy to have someone appointed and not reviewed at all.”

Former Sen. Mike Rose had a different take, calling it a “public abuse of power” to keep a magistrate in indefinite holdover status.

If magistrates are doing something illegal or unprofessional — like not showing up to work — state law allows them to be replaced regardless of whether they’re in a new term or not. But if they’re in holdover, the senator can replace them for any reason, said the Summerville Republican.

“The effect is the magistrate always has to worry about being replaced by a senator who doesn’t like a decision that’s been made,” Rose said. “The harm caused by a senator being able to indirectly influence the decision of magistrates outweighs any benefit.

Back to News