Lawmakers to examine potential changes to judge selection in SC

For the last several months, more voices have been added to calls for South Carolina to reform the way it picks judges.
Published: Nov. 7, 2023 at 5:32 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 7, 2023 at 5:50 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - For the last several months, more voices have been added to calls for South Carolina to reform the way it picks judges.

Now a group of lawmakers is taking a closer look, as a potential precursor to what, if any, changes could be enacted.

By next February, the newly formed House Ad Hoc Committee to Examine the Judicial Selection and Retention Process is expected to issue recommendations on whether South Carolina should change its judicial selection process and, if so, how.

That committee met for the first time Tuesday to begin its work, hearing from experts on South Carolina’s system and from judges and lawmakers in other states on how they select judges.

“I believe the work of this committee to enhance the public’s confidence in the judicial branch is a vital part of our preparation for the 2024 legislative session,” Rep. Weston Newton, R – Beaufort and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday. “Each of us, I know, have heard from many constituents and stakeholders, especially law enforcement and the executive branch, that judicial reform should be a legislative priority.”

South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature elects judges.

Before judicial candidates get to that point, they first go through an extensive screening process, capped off by appearing before a screening panel, known as the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) and predominantly made up of lawyers and legislators, who are typically also lawyers.

That has raised concerns that the people electing judges as lawmakers could later appear before them as lawyers and be treated more favorably in court.

“It is important for us to understand and remember that the public does have a perception that there is a problem, and what we should not do is to fool ourselves into believing that there is not a problem,” Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said.

Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington and the current chair of the JMSC, said he has not seen any proof the existing system is not working or that changes would improve it.

Caskey is the only lawyer-legislator on the JMSC who also sits on the ad hoc committee.

“We ought not try to fool people that motion is progress,” he said. “We ought to demand of ourselves a process and a solution that will necessarily generate better results.”

It’s a system that state Supreme Court Justice John Kittredge, who is likely South Carolina’s next chief justice as the only person seeking the job, said has produced good judges.

Kittredge advised lawmakers Tuesday against making drastic changes all at once to the judicial selection system.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “Pick some changes that would be more universally accepted, give it a try, see how it goes, measure it, but understand, unlike some efforts, particularly in government, when you go down a path, there’s no retreating.”

But he signaled support for giving the governor a greater role in judicial selection, including by allowing the governor to appoint people to the JMSC, the panel that screens judicial candidates before the General Assembly elects them.

“Allowing the governor, the executive branch, to have some say in the appointment process is a healthy thing,” he said.

Kittredge also vowed to promote diversity on South Carolina benches if he becomes chief justice.

A report released earlier this year found women and African Americans are disproportionately underrepresented on state benches.

“We can have a great bench. We have a great system,” he said. “But if it doesn’t reflect the people of South Carolina, we are going to lose the respect and integrity of the people we serve.”

This committee will meet again next week.

Current South Carolina Chief Justice Donald Beatty was on the agenda to speak Tuesday as well, but the committee’s chair said Beatty had a scheduling conflict, so lawmakers would try to reschedule for him to testify at a future meeting.