Impact: McMaster announces new judicial transparency policy

Impact: McMaster announces new judicial transparency policy

In a letter to state senators, Gov. Henry McMaster announced new disclosure requirements for anyone seeking a magistrate judge position. Nominees will have to provide details on an updated application form about their finances and business affiliations, political contributions, judicial philosophies, conflicts of interest and other background information.  

The change comes just weeks after The Nerve published two major stories exposing issues in our magistrate judge system, describing how some senators (who largely control magistrate selections) routinely practice as attorneys before judges they helped to the bench, and how it is common for magistrates to serve long after their statutory terms expire.

The S.C. Constitution states that magistrates are appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the Senate, though in practice, the governor can only “appoint” a candidate if he or she was first recommended by the state senator(s) in their county. His office typically rubber-stamps these names after routine background checks, according to The Nerve.  

Now, applicants will need to disclose more about their histories, financial situations, and job qualifications to be considered. Details on the following will be required: 

  • Financial assets and liabilities 
  • Business affiliations and arrangements 
  • Employment history 
  • Professional licensure 
  • Continuing education 
  • Involvement in litigation 
  • Political contributions 
  • Sentencing philosophy 
  • Social media accounts 
  • Actual or potential conflicts of interest (and how they would address these) 

Aside from personal or protected information, details offered by applicants may be subject to disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act, giving the public more transparency when it comes to local judges.  

Concerns about our judicial system, often raised by SCPC and The Nerve, were sharply noted by McMaster. He points out that only 27.8% of current sitting magistrates are licensed attorneys, and echoes The Nerve’s recent finding that roughly one quarter of magistrates are serving beyond their statutory terms.  

The letter is proof our work is having an impact. 

We support the change, as the disclosure requirements generally align with what the Senate asks of candidates appointed to other statewide boards and commissions. However, the reforms shouldn’t stop here. 

SCPC recommends tackling at least seven areas to clean up our judicial system, including three that directly relate to magistrates: 1) allow the governor to appoint magistrates without interference from Senate delegations (or, at a minimum, require senators to submit more than one name for the governor to consider), 2) close the holdover loophole that lets magistrates serve years beyond their statutory terms, and 3) require all South Carolina judges to have a law degree.  

Nevertheless, this is a great sign for the judicial reform movement. Stay tuned for more updates on this issue as we head into 2024.