Big updates on judicial reform as Nerve stories make waves

Big updates on judicial reform as Nerve stories make waves

This week, as The Nerve published hard-hitting stories exposing issues with S.C.’s magistrate judge system (read them here and here), two big developments on judicial reform made headlines.  

Here’s what to know … 

On Monday, the independent news outlet FITSNews reported that S.C. Senator Wes Climer is planning to filibuster legislation setting dates for next year’s judicial elections until reform is passed. This could turn out to be an excellent move to force action by lawmakers, though it raises an obvious question: what specific reforms are needed? 

The Policy Council recommends tackling at least seven areas to clean up our judicial system: 

    1. Overhaul the Judicial Merit Selection Commission 

    2. Remove the cap on judicial nominees 

    3. Improve transparency surrounding the screening process 

    4. Require a majority of both chambers to elect judges 

    5. Reform the magistrate selection process 

    6. Close the magistrate holdover loophole 

    7. All judges should need a law degree 

You can learn more about each of these proposals here.  

Not long after Senator Climer’s filibuster announcement, a second piece of news dropped: S.C. House Speaker Murrell Smith is forming a study committee to look at judicial reform, with meetings set to begin later this year. Smith wants the committee to produce a bill on the issue by February, according to FITSNews.  

While we’re glad to see movement on this issue, it's not time for celebration just yet. Study committees in theory can do good work, but they can also be used by legislators to shape the debate in their favor and tightly control what sort of bills make it to the floor (and have a chance of passing). And frankly, this issue has been well studied – not just by this organization, but by other groups and legislators who’ve long been fighting for reform.  

If nothing else, bringing the reform effort under one roof (at least on the House side) will make the debate easier to follow. You can be certain that SCPC will be at every committee meeting, supporting serious reforms with our testimony and research when possible. 

Last month, SCPC revealed that South Carolina lags behind Virginia (the only other state where judges are legislatively elected) in key areas when it comes to picking judges. By comparison, we provide less transparency as judges are being screened, give a handful of lawmakers too much power over nominations, and have uneven election rules. 

Eventually, South Carolina should do away with legislative elections and adopt the federal model of electing judges (allowing the governor to appoint judges with Senate or full General Assembly confirmation). This method would provide far more balance and accountability than the current system, not to mention it would be easier to follow for voters. But since this will require amending the S.C. Constitution (which could take several years, if not longer) we support smaller reforms in the meantime. 

Stay tuned for more updates on this issue as we head into 2024.