S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, March 18, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.0318.judge.htm


Judicial election reforms may be waiting in wings
By Andy Brack, Publisher

MARCH 18, 2007 -- More than likely, the way state judges are picked will change after this year. With all that's going on at the Statehouse, it should.

A high-profile, eight-way race for a slot on the S.C. Supreme Court has the legislature in a tizzy. Some background first:

With the pending retirement of Justice E.C. Burnett III, state lawmakers are expected in late May to elect a successor. Because two other current justices face mandatory retirement at age 72 in the next two years, the election of Burnett's successor takes on a special significance because the winner likely will be the next long-serving chief justice.

Current Chief Justice Jean Toal, 63, has just over eight years to remain the state's top jurist. Because the chief justice role traditionally is based on seniority of service, Justice Costa Pleiconas would be the next logical head of the court. But since he's only six months younger than Toal, the next jurist in line to make a significant imprint on the court as chief justice likely will be Burnett's successor.

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Lawmakers are feeling selection pressure, insiders say. In South Carolina, House members and senators elect judges after a merit-based screening report by the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a 10-member panel of six lawmakers and four public members.

To be considered, candidates make an application and undergo background checks. They participate in a series of interviews and a public hearing. The commission then releases a report that says whether candidates are qualified. It also makes up to three recommendations.

At that point, it is acceptable for candidates to solicit commitments of votes from the 170 House members and senators who make the final pick. A few weeks later, the vote is held and a new justice is elected.

SUPREME COURT CANDIDATES

  • Don Beatty, S.C. Court of Appeals judge
  • John Few, S.C. Circuit Court judge
  • Kenneth Goode, S.C. Circuit Court Judge
  • Diane Goodstein, S.C. Circuit Court judge
  • Mark Hayes, S.C. Circuit Court judge
  • Kaye Hearn, Chief Judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals
  • Eugene Morehead, Family Court judge
  • Bruce Williams, S.C. Court of Appeals judge

On paper, this blend of a merit-based system that involves a vote by lawmakers would seem to work. Yes, the vote is a political process involving legislators. But in a representative democracy, our society puts a great value on the experience of lawmakers to make important choices. Additionally, the commission's input into the process helps to promote the best candidates in a race.

"I think the combination of merit and legislative elections is a strong combination," said state Sen. Jim Ritchie, the Spartanburg Republican who chairs the commission. "But it is only as credible as the members (of the legislature) allow it to be."

In practice, the process of becoming a judge has some loopholes. Because lawmakers aren't allowed to pledge their vote to any candidate until the release of the commission's qualification report, there's a gray area of whether a lawmaker can encourage someone to run before the person applies for the position. Some argue that people aren't "candidates" until they make an application to run for a judgeship. Before that time, they would argue, rules of endorsement don't really apply.

Also, there's a huge system of rumor, innuendo and gossip that develops prior to judicial elections. Even though lawmakers aren't supposed to endorse candidates before the report, it is common to hear that a candidate might have a lawmaker's quiet backing. In the coming election for a Supreme Court justice, the gossip mill reportedly is worse than ever before, according to key insiders.

Another big problem in the process is the daily line-up. As a judgeship vote approaches, candidates line legislative walkways just to be seen by the state's 170 lawmakers. It's not pretty. Candidates struggle to press flesh and get brief "face time" with lawmakers. In addition to being a big waste of time for candidates, it is embarrassing to see them suck up to lawmakers.

For the last two years, the Senate has sent legislation to the House that would strengthen the judicial merit system by prohibiting all endorsements, "understandings" and support of anyone for a judgeship until after the commission's screening report is public.

If the House doesn't soon adopt that idea, more serious reforms may be on the way. One way or another, the process needs to be tightened up to ensure there's no undue influence and we get the best judges possible - - and not any gussied-up political appointees.

You can reach Andy Brack, publisher of SC Statehouse Report, at brack@statehousereport.com.

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Another great cartoon by Bill McLemore:

feedback
3/16: SC on track to becoming nuclear chump

To the editor:

Thanks for shedding some light on bill 3545, which is designed to get rid of the Atlantic compact. [Commentary, 3/4]

The Barnwell site was supposed to close in 1992 when S.C. was a member of the Southeastern Compact. N.C. was supposed to take over the job of storing all the "low level" radioactive waste at that time. Chem-Nuke worked the Statehouse and though the legislature voted to close the site down by one vote. Gov. [Carroll] Campbell got around that by sticking the keep-Barnwell-open-to-everyone bill in the budget.

Now the site is supposed to close to all but three states within a year. Funny thing, not one shovel of dirt has been move in any other state in preparation for a new radioactive dump. They obviously all know that S.C. is going to, yet again, do what the nuclear industry tells or pays them to do.

-- Leslie Minerd, Columbia, S.C.

3/16: Everybody loses with payday lending

To the editor:

Excellent column [on payday loans.]

While I'm sure we'll see some legislative action on this, there's a lot of other work that can be done outside of the legislative process. My blog discussed the issue, and my company has talked about the issue, related to both payday and refund anticipation loans, in company publications that I write and edit.

Clearly, there is a benefit for employers to be pro-active on these issues. An employee who keeps more of what they earn is an employee less likely to leave a company in search of more pay to offset the money lost to predatory lenders. While it's not necessarily a bad thing for people to seek to earn more, many who leave companies for a substantial increase in pay do so by agreeing to take a step up. If they're taking that step up for more money because they need to pay bills, not because they're qualified, they'll likely fail to meet the expectations for that position,. When that happens, they'll end up unemployed, worsening their financial predicament.

In the end, everyone loses - the first employer, who lost a good employee, the second employer, who wasted time and money on a bad fit for a position, and the employee, who ends up with no job and more bills to pay.

South Carolina, because of its low standings in so many socio-economic indicators, is attractive to predatory bottom-feeding businesses like predatory lenders and video poker. As such, the fight to protect our state from predators will likely be a long one. While we need to be able to act to respond to such outrageous situations, we must also work in a proactive manner which can help address the underlying conditions which attract these problems in the first place.

-- Earl Capps, Summerville, S.C.

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Smoking debate smolders
From the paid-subscriber issue of Statehouse Report

MARCH 16, 2007 -- A state judge's recent decision to overturn the City of Greenville's indoor smoking ban has reignited efforts within the General Assembly to tackle the issue of a statewide indoor smoking ban once and for all.

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