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SC to be Only State with No Woman on Supreme Court Bench

Originally published by Alexander Thompson for the Post and Courier

A joint session of the S.C. General Assembly voted to elect Appeals Judge Gary Hill as the new justice on the state Supreme Court, capping off a contentious race to replace Justice Kaye Hearn, the author of the controversial January ruling that struck down the state’s six-week abortion ban.

The Feb. 8 election in which Hill’s two opponents, both female appeals court judges, dropped out the same day legislators were legally allowed to begin pledging their support, makes South Carolina the only state in the country without a woman on its highest court.

The vast majority of the Legislature’s Republicans and Democrats, 140, voted for Hill, while eight legislators voted against him and more than a dozen voted present or abstained.

The “no” and “present” votes came primarily from the Senate’s five women and members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, who, for very different reasons, have objected to the process.

In a statement, Hill said he was honored by the bipartisan support.

“With God’s grace, I will continue to do my best to uphold our great tradition of the rule of law, preserve and defend our hard-won constitutional principles without fear or favor,” he said.

House Freedom Caucus members, who have called the judicial selection process opaque and corrupt, forced roll-call votes on all the judicial races, a break with custom by which court votes were practically automatic in races with only one candidate.

The vote came under unusual scrutiny after the state Supreme Court ruled the six-week abortion ban violated the privacy provision of the state constitution, prompting fury from anti-abortion Republicans who accused the court of judicial activism.

Those same Republicans saw the judicial election as an opportunity to flip the court’s majority by replacing Hearn with someone more receptive to abortion restrictions.

As if to underline how central abortion has become to the election, hours before the Legislature voted, the state Supreme Court rejected petitions for rehearing of the abortion decision filed by the governor, the state attorney general, and the state’s legislative leadership by the same 3-2 majority that made the original ruling.

Republicans have repeatedly called Hill a “conservative” and a “strict constructionist.”

At Hill’s 2017 hearing to join the Court of Appeals he pledged to be “very deferential” to the Legislature.

“And I’m a firm believer in a strict separation of powers,” he said. “I believe in deference to the other branches to do what the Founders intended them to do.”

Along with cases on abortion restrictions, the court is expected to deal with other highly politicized issues on school vouchers and the death penalty in the coming term.

The election took a dramatic turn in its final weeks when Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, accused the House Republican Caucus of conducting an informal poll of the race at a caucus meeting before pledging was legally allowed to begin. She alleges there was an agreement on Hill along with pressure on the two female candidates to drop out.

In an impassioned Senate floor speech, Senn, who supported Judge Stephanie McDonald, one of the other Supreme Court candidates, said the lack of female representation in the judiciary is an embarrassment.

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