SC judicial selection remains far from what it should be

“We ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

That quote, which Martin Luther King attributed to a preacher who had been a slave, came to mind in perusing this report at The Nerve.

Basically, it tells you what we told you in the “Power Failure” series more than 20 years ago, and many times since in The State: That while our method of choosing judges in South Carolina isn’t the worst system in the country (the worst would be direct popular election, which is employed in far too many jurisdictions), it’s far from what it should be.

Back when we first wrote about it the SC bench was one of the best examples of the gross imbalance of power in SC, which we (after V.O. Key and others) called “The Legislative State.” Judges were chosen completely by and at the discretion of the Legislature, and whether you made it to the bench depended on how many friends you had among lawmakers.

Today, lawmakers still retain complete control over the selection of the judiciary, and it is to my knowledge accurate to characterize the system as The Nerve does:

Once a judicial candidate has been approved by the 10-member, legislatively dominated Commission, he or she goes on to a joint session of House and Senate for a majority vote. The vote, however, isn’t simply for or against the one candidate; it’s for one candidate over against others. That’s because the Judicial Merit Selection Commission is required to nominate up to three qualified candidates for each position (assuming there are three qualified applicants). If they want the job, therefore, judicial nominees must curry favor with legislators – “curry favor” meaning schmooze, glad hand – in order to secure the requisite number of votes. Lawmakers, for their part, have in the past been quite open about the fact that they’ve got to “get to know” candidates before they’ll support their candidacies.

What this means, in effect, is that by the time a judicial nominee becomes a judge in South Carolina, he or she is personally and professionally beholden to state lawmakers in unhealthy ways. Can judicial independence really exist in such a system? The fact that the question can be seriously asked is a problem.

All true, near as I can tell — not having been personally present for a judicial election in awhile.

I’ll say one thing in the current system’s defense, though — it does produce better results than it did when we first started writing about it. That’s because, with Glenn McConnell’s leadership, that Judicial Merit Selection Commission was formed, and has done a pretty fair job since then of making sure those candidates that lawmakers are allowed to vote for do have real-world qualifications. So now, you still might have to be the most popular candidate among lawmakers, but you have to be the most popular among a small group of qualified candidates.

That’s a big improvement. Of course, it came about because Sen. McConnell wanted to preserve the current system. So he just made the current system better, to blunt legitimate criticism. It’s good that we have better-qualified candidates ascending to the bench. And this system is much better than direct popular election.

But it’s not as good as what we should have. The system most likely to produce a qualified, independent judiciary that stood as a full, coequal branch would be one like the federal system — the executive nominates, and the legislative provides advice and consent. That way, a judge is not the creature of any particular part of the political branches.

As to when we might get something like that, The Nerve is also accurate when it says we shouldn’t hold our breaths waiting for the Legislature to make the change willingly.

5 thoughts on “SC judicial selection remains far from what it should be

  1. Brad

    Let me add a big caveat to what I say about McConnell’s reforms having made the process better than it was…

    I have no doubt that the process did a better job in the first years after it was enacted. Those were also years when I had people — or to put it in stark terms, I had Cindi Scoppe — watching this like a hawk.

    It’s been awhile (as in, since well before I was laid off by The State) since Cindi, or I, or anyone with whom I am affiliated has had time to give the system the kind of routine, ongoing scrutiny that would enable me to say with confidence that it has continued to be better than it was.

    There are rumblings I hear about that the panel has become more cronified (just to make up a word) in recent years, with such members as Jake Knotts, and (until recently) Robert Ford, and Bobby Harrell’s brother. (Here’s the full current membership of the commission.) And I just haven’t been in a position to assess realistically what effect that has had. I think it’s fairly safe to say it hasn’t IMPROVED the situation…

  2. Bryan D. Caskey

    I think we have a great judiciary. The system we have is about as good as it gets unless we go to life-tenure for Judges.

    Having said that, if you want to improve, go to life-tenure for judges. It eliminates the appearance of impropriety. That’s why we have it for SCOTUS. The only tweak I would add to that is put an age cap in there to compel mandatory retirement around 80 or so.

  3. Brad

    I agree. I find it disturbing for judges to come back up for appointment before politicians who have a judicial record to react to.

    Of course, lifetime appointment means you have to REALLY be sure your initial selection method is everything it should be.

  4. Mark Stewart

    And so what you are saying is that while we have corruptable judges, they are far better than the pool of attorneys from which they have arisen.

    I’ve met good judges and seen bad ones in action, but the worst attorneys, as far as justice goes, seem to be the ones with judicial aspirations – except of course for the crooked ones. It would be good for the state and it’s citizens to remove the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Supreme Court’s misconduct process. There is an area even more in need of a little sunshine.

    I’m starting to sound like Juan with that said.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    Some judges are really great lawyers; but many not so much. The political wrangling turns off most of the better candidates.

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