SC prosecutors, sheriffs call for change in how state selects judges

South Carolina’s top prosecutor is calling on the legislature to change the way the state picks its judges.
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 10:52 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 27, 2023 at 11:06 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina’s top prosecutor is calling on the legislature to change the way the state picks its judges.

On Monday, Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, was joined by a bipartisan group of more than two dozen sheriffs and solicitors, urging reform to the judicial selection process.

South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature elects judges, and under this system, lawmakers also decide who sits on the candidate screening panel, called the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, or JMSC.

It’s made up of 10 members, six of whom are state legislators and the other four of whom are chosen by legislative leaders.

Wilson said Monday that process is imbalanced between the three branches of government.

“There is no executive involvement at all in that process,” he said. “We’re completely cut out of the process.”

In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Henry McMaster called for the governor to appoint judges with Senate approval.

Wilson stopped short of endorsing that or any specific selection model but said South Carolina needs a system in which the executive branch, of which he and McMaster are part, has more power.

“We believe that the government governs best when its three subordinate branches of government have equal checks on each other’s ambition. That does not happen in our current system,” he said.

When asked, no one in the group of solicitors and sheriffs who stood alongside Wilson indicated they would support a popular election of judges, as some states do and which would require voters’ approval as a constitutional amendment.

But David Pascoe, the Democratic solicitor for Orangeburg, Calhoun, and Dorchester counties, endorsed two changes the General Assembly can implement on its own.

They both concern the JMSC, which screens and then whittles all candidates for an open judge seat down to three options for the General Assembly’s election.

The first bill would allow the General Assembly to make its pick from all candidates the JMSC determines are qualified instead of just the three.

“I think it is too cozy,” Pascoe said. “I think there are a lot of insider deals going on with regards to the selection of judges, and we need to put an end to that.”

Wilson and the group of solicitors and sheriffs said they want these changes to happen as soon as possible.

But time is running out for that to happen during this year’s legislative session, which wraps in mid-May, so they said this might be more realistically a push for next year.