A reform effort to tackle one of South Carolina’s most urgent issues is gaining major steam.
On Monday, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson hosted a public discussion in Charleston with more than 30 state legislators to discuss judicial reform, urging members to address longstanding problems with how South Carolina selects its judges.
South Carolina is one of just two states where judges are legislatively elected, a method used to fill seats on the state Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, circuit court, family court, and Administrative Law Court. In a broad sense, our legislative branch hires – and when it chooses not to re-elect – fires our judicial branch.
Additionally, before a judge can be elected, he or she must be screened and nominated by a 10-member panel called the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), a body controlled by just three state legislators: the House speaker (five appointments); the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman (three appointments); and the Senate president (two appointments). Six of 10 commissioners must be lawmakers, according to state law.
The commission’s power is amplified by a law that limits how many candidates can be nominated per judicial seat, which is no more than three. For example, if five candidates apply for an open seat, and all are found qualified, the commission will choose which three get to advance, and it does not have to explain its decision.
The attorney general on Monday called for an overhaul of the JMSC, stating that legislators should not serve on the commission and that the governor should appoint its members, among other changes. These are certainly steps in the right direction. In April, we proposed similar measures in a report outlining six steps on how to improve our judicial selection process.
He’s also expressed support for more ambitious reforms, such as eventually transitioning to the federal model of selecting judges, in which our governor would appoint judges with Senate or possibly full legislative confirmation. This is the most balanced and accountable method in our view and should be the end goal. The big hurdle, however, is that legislative elections are written in our state Constitution and abolishing them needs a constitutional amendment.
Fighting for reform
The S.C. Policy Council (SCPC) has been a leader on judicial reform for over a decade. Our investigative news site, The Nerve, first alerted the public to potential legal issues surrounding the JMSC back in 2010, and both SCPC and The Nerve have published numerous hard-hitting news and research reports on this issue over the years.
This year we've stepped it up and gone on the offensive. In March, SCPC Senior Policy Analyst Bryce Fiedler presented at a judicial reform summit alongside Attorney General Wilson, Governor Henry McMaster, and state legislators to advocate for critical reforms, including overhauling the JMSC and addressing problems with the selection of magistrate judges.
SCPC’s Bryce Fiedler speaks at a judicial reform summit in Columbia on March 4th.
SCPC later showed support during a bipartisan judicial reform press conference at the Statehouse, which was attended by prominent law enforcement officials and community members. JMSC reform was again noted as a top priority.
It’s clear that momentum is building on this issue, and we intend to capitalize. Restoring judicial integrity is one of our top priorities during the 2024 legislative session, and we'll be working closely with state leaders on these necessary reforms. In fact, several bills filed in 2023 mirror our proposals, meaning the next step is to get them assigned for committee hearings when lawmakers return in January.
For more information on this and other important legal reforms, visit our legal issues page.