State prosecutors on Tuesday delivered explosive testimony to a House committee tasked with reviewing how South Carolina picks its judges, giving detailed accounts of actual or perceived favoritism, misbehavior and poor judgement they have witnessed or heard about.
The examples, according to them, are shaking public trust in our judiciary – and show a system prone to abuse. SCPC agrees.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who spoke first, described a civil case involving a lawyer-legislator that left a private industrial company on the hook for “millions and millions” of dollars. According to Wilson, a municipal worker sued the company after taking one of their locally offered safety courses (which related to the employee's job) and suffering a work-site injury more than 15 years later. The city worker had no other apparent connection to the company.
The company CEO told Wilson that before an important legal hearing, a lawyer-legislator appeared and spoke with the presiding judge outside of the courthouse. The company’s legal team was not present for the conversation. Once proceedings began, the CEO said they “lost every single motion” and claims that evidentiary rulings were never in their favor.
The CEO felt that the judge was influenced by the lawyer-legislator. It’s a story he regularly tells business colleagues, said Wilson, and it's shaped the CEO’s perception of South Carolina as a “judicial hellhole.”
Wilson advocated for reforms supported by SCPC, such as letting the governor appoint most, if not all, of the members on the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC). The commission, whose members are currently picked by three legislative leaders, is responsible for screening and nominating judicial candidates before they can be elected by the General Assembly.
In addition to balancing out the selection process, the change would introduce a central executive – the governor – into the equation, who would be accountable to all South Carolina voters for his appointments.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe went next and gave the most blistering remarks. He also gave names, a first for those testifying before the committee.
According to Pascoe:
After denying continuance (a move to delay proceedings) to then-JMSC member and former lawyer-lawmaker Peter McCoy in a legal case, former Judge Kristi Harrington faced reprisal by the JMSC. During her screening for re-election, she was ridiculed by a commissioner about her finances and student loans, read her Miranda rights as if to suggest she was in trouble, and faced other threats. Pascoe says the committee even manipulated then-head of the S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel John Nichols to attend the hearing and sit in the front row to intimidate Harrington, a move led in part by JMSC leader and state Senator Luke Rankin.
- Circuit Judge Daniel Coble recently ruled on the side of lawyer-legislator and JMSC member Todd Rutherford in a civil case about legal fees following a federal plutonium settlement. The ruling came two weeks before Coble appeared before the JMSC on Nov. 7 for his re-election screening. At a minimum, Pascoe says, the optics of the situation “look horrible.”
“The JMSC process is rigged,” said Pascoe. And it does not “weed out” bad judges, according to him, it “berates,” “threatens,” and “intimidates” many of the good ones until they drop out. “That is not a system we should support.”
Pascoe described a recent conversation with state senator and attorney Dick Harpootlian on the subject. “Yes,” Harpootlian told him, “Lawyer-legislators get preferential treatment. It’s not a secret.”
Wilson and fellow state prosecutors made sure to clarify they are not attacking South Carolina’s judiciary, including the many honest judges and attorneys that keep it running, but rather the “rotten” system that advantages lawyer-legislators and harms public trust.
SCPC will continue to monitor and provide updates on these hearings. The next one is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 28.