S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, May 20, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.0520.justice.htm


Outside groups thwart real justice in judicial elections
By Andy Brack, Publisher

MAY 20, 2007 - - Judicial elections are, by their very nature, political. But a new twist to what may be one of the most important legislative votes of the decade is stirring up the General Assembly.

On Wednesday, lawmakers will pick from among three state appellate judges to fill a seat on the S.C. Supreme Court being vacated by Justice E.C. Burnett III, who faces retirement at age 72. In the running for the seat are S.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Kaye Hearn and colleagues Don Beatty and Bruce Williams. The election is key because the winner likely will be the next long-term chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

SUPREME COURT CANDIDATES

  • Don Beatty, S.C. Court of Appeals judge
  • Kaye Hearn, Chief Judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals
  • Bruce Williams, S.C. Court of Appeals judge

Through the years, the state has developed a system in which those interested in becoming a judge file paperwork to run for a seat and then submit to a comprehensive review by a judicial screening committee that includes input from lawyers, citizens and legislators. The panel then recommends up to three qualified candidates. They politick among state lawmakers, who make the final decision.

For years, lawmakers have tinkered with the process to try to take as much of the politics out of these judicial elections as possible so members could vote for the candidate who would make the best judge based on merit, not politics.

Some would argue legislators haven't been that successful because of quiet "understandings" with judicial candidates before they formally become candidates. But it also can be argued that lawmakers are able to rise above the gossipy political part of the process because they've got thicker political skins. As a result, they can pick the best qualified candidate for the job.

With all of that said, a new twist arose in the current judicial election process that could lead to sweeping changes in how judges of the future are selected.

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What's happened is that conservative outside groups have started twisting arms of lawmakers to get them to vote for or against one of the three candidates in the Supreme Court race:

  • The S.C. Civil Justice Coalition, a business-backed conservative group that wants tort reform and workers' comp changes, sent letters to lawmakers with a self-serving analysis that rated the three candidates based on the group's interpretation of decisions related to business and the state's economic environment.

  • The Palmetto Family Alliance, a conservative group that strives to defend and strengthen so-called family values, attacked two candidates on the hot button issues of abortion and judicial activism. In an email to members, it said, "it is not our way to scream at your with red type, but this really is important." (Translation: We're screaming at you about this vote.)

  • The S.C. Business and Industry Political Education Committee (SCBIPEC) sent a memo to state lawmakers that one candidate was a "business positive" vote while others would be "business negative."

There's nothing illegal about what these groups are doing. They have every right to exercise their rights of free speech and give their opinion.

But just because they have the right doesn't mean they need to use it. It's kind of like the guy who wears a ball cap inside when eating Sunday dinner. Sure, he can do it, but in the South, it doesn't show the best of manners.

What these groups essentially are doing is escalating the race to the gutter in judicial elections. Instead of letting lawmakers make up their minds based on the merit of candidates, they're sending flaming salvos to lawmakers to more deeply politicize the process. And in effect, they're issuing quiet threats to legislators that they might use a "wrong" vote against them in their own elections in 2008.

State Sen. Glenn McConnell, president pro tempore of the Senate, said these campaigns from the outside are having an impact on the process.

"People are thinking twice and looking closer now," he said. And while that may sound good to some, it also suggests lawmakers may be flipping their votes because they're worried about what outside groups think.

Former Sen. McKinley Washington of Ravenel said the influence of outside groups could be detrimental.

"What you wind up getting is ideologues [on the bench] instead of real justice."

Let's hope state lawmakers can ignore outside groups during the Wednesday vote and cast ballots for the person who will be best for the state. If they don't, look for other groups to inject themselves into the process in the future - or for state lawmakers to start looking at judicial elections by the public, which would really politicize the process.

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

Recent commentary

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Another great cartoon by Bill McLemore:

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5/16: Gun commentary is liberal doom and gloom

To the publisher:

While reading your Commentary in Monday's Sumter Item [Commentary, 5/13], I thought, if you'll pardon the pun, "What a target rich environment". I had hoped that after all the hand wringing over firearms had somewhat died down since the Liberal Doom and Gloom predictions never came to pass; that maybe some sense could be applied to the gun issues we face daily as citizens of this nation. You have proved that there are still miles to go before the hooplaphobes (those that have an irrational fear of firearms) can ever calm down.

You bewail the very idea of allowing teachers, administrators, and others carry concealed firearms on school property. Never mind that these folks have passed the State's mandatory training and SLED background checks in order to be qualified for the license to carry a concealed weapon. You cast the same aspersions that have been around since the whole CCW Permit Act was passed. "Blood will run in the streets!" "People will pull out their guns to settle the least argument"! etc. None of these have happened. You voice concern that, perhaps innocents might be harmed in a citizens attempt to put an end to a situation such as Virginia Tech. Over the years, in armed citizen, firing to protect themselves, have proved to be more accurate than the average law officer who goes to the range and qualifies once a year. There have been no cases of citizens firing 41 shots like the NYPD has been known to do while scoring only 3 hits and those were not serious.

All in all, Mr. Brack of the S. C. Statehouse Report I can only believe that you cannot have given rational thought to what he had written and must have simply been passing along the Brady Matra (sic) without doing his homework. But then, that group seldom does.

-- Rev. Joel Osborne, Sumter, S.C.

Publisher's note: The above letter came in at more than 1,300 words. Since the Report's Feedback policy limits responses to 250 words, the above letter -- and the one below -- were edited for length.

5/13: Gun article shows Brack is liberal writer

To the publisher:

After reading your article this morning, I have come to the conclusion that you are another one of those well educated liberal writers that do very little work other than quoting other people and their work. As far as the Second Amendment, I don't think I need you to interpret the amendment because if I remember it right, it makes no distinctions between rifles, pistols, or shotguns. You need to write this in the palm of your hand so you will have it with you at all times to read.

A person wanting to kill people, indiscriminately, can find no better place than a school, church, or bar, where firearms are illegal to be carried by all including conceal carry permits. Only law enforcement officers, at this time, are allowed to carry firearms in these locations. How long do you think it will take to get police to one of these locations, 5, 10, or 15 minutes depending on the site? Then you have additional time of the law enforcement trying to find out what is going on and where to go in the building and waiting for back up to arrive. Therefore, during this time, you are putting yourself at the mercy of the gun man and at Virginia Tech, he showed no mercy.

I think you would be better off sticking to what is taking place in the State House rather than trying to interpret the Constitution the way you see it and quoting other liberals. Before you take all the firearms away that people have for protection (pistols), think about how long it would take the police to reach a house in a good neighborhood and how long it takes them to reach a crime ridden neighborhood. The pistol may make the difference whether the person lived or died.

-- Dan Packard, Florence, S.C.

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Just a quick note to let you know how you missed out this week. If you were a subscriber to the paid edition of Statehouse Report, you would have received the information below on Friday AND you would have gotten other special features:

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  • PALMETTO POLITICS: Sanford's renewed tactic
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A $90 million health plan
From the paid-subscriber issue of Statehouse Report

MAY 18, 2007 -- Under a cigarette tax increase plan that passed the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week, as much as $90 million could be diverted into a healthcare savings account that could later be used to help fund the state's massive Medicaid program.

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