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Solicitors Call for Reform of Judicial Appointment Process

Originally published by James Paul for the Post and Courier

Solicitors David Pascoe and Scarlett Wilson addressed a forum May 30 to criticize the state’s practice of appointing judges, stoking fire behind talks of comprehensive reform that were shot down at the most recent legislative session.

Pascoe and Wilson spoke about South Carolina’s legislative system of appointing judges, which they claim fosters corruption and nepotism.

Their bipartisan call for judicial reform, discussed in front of 20 attendees at the Berkeley County Fraternal Order of Police Headquarters, highlights ongoing legislative efforts to change this system despite significant challenges and recent setbacks.

South Carolina is one of two states, the other being Virginia, where the state Legislature alone picks judges. Magistrate judges of the lower court are almost solely appointed by the local state senators.

Critics of the system say it’s open to manipulation by legislators who are also lawyers and elect judges before whom they might argue a case.

Pascoe, a Democrat, and Wilson, a Republican, have been outspoken about the need for judicial reform. Pascoe’s First Judicial District is composed of Calhoun, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties. Wilson’s Ninth Judicial Circuit is composed of Berkeley and Charleston counties.

Wilson said legislators often don’t look far from home when appointing judges. She pointed to the close personal and familial ties between judges and legislators, arguing it undermines public trust in the judiciary.

“We have judges who are wives of legislators, who are husbands of legislators, who are cousins of legislators, who are law partners of legislators, and that looks bad,” Wilson said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not good people. They can do a good job. But it does mean we need to be more mindful that people lose trust when that’s what they see.”

Another part of the process Pascoe and Wilson pointed out is the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which screens prospective judges. Legislators hold the majority of seats on the 10-person commission, which assesses and forwards up to three candidates for the rest of the legislature to vote on.

Without term limits, critics say the commission is a bulwark for an old guard of legislatures to maintain their grip on ideologically similar judges.

“The (JMSC) are the gatekeepers,” Wilson said. “The shenanigans don’t happen at the vote for judges. The shenanigans happen at the JMSC, or sometimes even before the JMSC.”

Also central to the forum was the state’s protection of lawyer legislators. Wilson said legislators who serve as private lawyers are benefactors to a swath of perks, including the seven months during the legislative session when they can skirt court hearings to attend mandatory meetings in Columbia.

Wilson said for wealthy clients looking to delay their trials, lawyer legislators are an enticing option.

In the most recent legislative session, judicial reforms bounced between the House and Senate before the issue was sent into a closed two-chamber discussion.

Pascoe said the original bill in the Senate was lofty in its aims but ultimately got gutted before being passed along to the House.

Back in the House, lawmakers added new demands to the bill, including amendments allowing a governor’s appointment to the JMSC, which would effectively topple the legislator majority of the commission.

After the two chambers failed to agree — with Pascoe heralding the House as more radical in its reform efforts — three members from each chamber formed a conference committee after the legislative session ended on May. It will continue work on a judicial reform bill package.

Following a sign-off from the governor, the agreed-upon bill could pass early in June, according to Pascoe.

“That was a big push and a big lift,” said Rep. Brandon Cox, R-Berkeley, who’s in favor of the more radical house bill and was in attendance at the forum. “And I’m really happy that we got it to where it’s at. There’s still a lot more that needs to be done — (but) this is a good start.”

The forum was hosted by the South Carolina Women in Leadership. Only 15.3 percent of the 170 seats in the state legislature are held by women, whereas 51 percent of S.C.’s population is female, according to the nonprofit. This puts the state near last in terms of representation compared to the rest of the nation.

Melissa Enos-Sims, the Lowcountry outreach director for South Carolina Women in Leadership and a participant at the forum, partly blamed the majority male legislative body for the current demographic makeup of the state Supreme Court — currently the only all-male Supreme Court in the nation.

“So I think when you have issues that go to the Supreme Court that are hyperbolic political issues like abortion, you want to have equal representation where different people’s experiences and viewpoints are heard and understood. And not pushed aside.”

She said men appointing men may result in the loss of female representation in issues that generally affect them.

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