Do you believe in the concept of the rule of law? If so, what is your personal relationship with it?

Rep. Hill, from his campaign Facebook page.

Rep. Hill, from his campaign Facebook page.

On a couple of occasions during my years chairing The State‘s editorial board, someone who had come to meet with us to advocate for a position on some complex issue would say, in response to our questions, “Wow. Y’all understand this better than a lot of legislators.”

I can’t recall now whether I was ever startled into saying this out loud, but I know what I wanted to say whenever this happened: “Well, I certainly hope so!”

You may think that sounds arrogant and conceited. But it wasn’t really. It was based in extensive experience with legislators like Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, who distributed to SC judicial candidates a questionnaire with such questions as:

9. Do you believe in the “Supreme Being” (SC Constitution, Article VI, Section 2)? What is the nature of this being? What is your personal relationship to this being? What relevance does this being have on the position of judge? Please be specific….

14. Please name an example of a Federal violation of the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and state how you would respond as a state-level judge.

15. What role do you wish to play in effecting policy change?…

19. Would you ever assign the death penalty in a particular case? Under what circumstances?…

21. Do you believe unborn children have rights? If so, how would those factor in to your decisions as a judge?…

24. Would you perform a homosexual marriage, either voluntarily or involuntarily?

25. Does the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution apply only to the militia and military, or to the people at large?…

To which one naturally wants to reply:

  1. Do you believe in the rule of law and not of men?
  2. If your answer is “yes,” what’s with the questions?

This case illustrates well something else I’ve learned over the years, something which I continue to have trouble convincing Doug of: Experience as a lawmaker has value. Which is why, if all other things are equal, I’ll pick a veteran lawmaker over a novice.

You see, Mr. Hill is a freshman lawmaker, in his first month in office. He is, in fact, a 29-year-old freshman legislator, which means that not only does he not know much about the way the political and legal worlds work, but he’s not overly burdened with life experience in general.

To his credit, he seems to understand this, and is willing to learn. As he said after staffers of the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission diplomatically told him some of the questions were “problematic:”

“You live and learn,” said Hill, a 29-year-old Anderson businessman and freshman legislator. “Maybe next year I’ll be in a better position to — if I put out a questionnaire — to craft it in a way that would work a little bit better.”…

I find that reassuring. I am less comforted that he also said this:

Hill said he tried not to ask leading questions because he wanted honest answers. “If you’re a candidate and you tell me … what you think I want to hear … that doesn’t help me at all.”…

So, apparently, he actually thought that no one could infer where he was coming from from these questions. But again, he’s young.

Fortunately, as of The State‘s reporting of the matter, no judicial candidates had actually answered Rep. Hill’s questions. This should make us all feel better.

37 thoughts on “Do you believe in the concept of the rule of law? If so, what is your personal relationship with it?

  1. Doug Ross

    How many years do you think it takes to understand how the system “works”? If it’s more than one, how many years make you a “veteran” capable of understanding the rocket science of legislation? Are the citizens who elected this new legislator supposed to wait X number of terms before the young lad should be expected to do the job he was elected to do?

    I just find it amusing that you think there is some great, deep knowledge required to be a legislator. It’s more a result of trying to fit into the good old boy system than it is understanding the law.

    I guess I’m missing the point of this post. He wasn’t supposed to ask those questions of candidates because? Because the candidates would be on the record with their beliefs? Because the questions were too hard to answer?

    Your condescension toward young people will apparently grow as you age and the number of people younger than you increases. Reality check: there are people half your age (and mine) who are far more talented, accomplished, smarter, etc. than you’ll ever be. You should welcome that instead of pretending old fogies like Hugh Leatherman, et al are on a higher plane than the rest of us.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “How many years do you think it takes to understand how the system ‘works’?”

      In this case, I think Mr. Hill has learned a great deal only three weeks in.

      And I think it will make him a better lawmaker. Yes, that’s a low bar at the moment. But I think he means well.

      You exaggerate in your response, Doug. I’m not “pretending old fogies like Hugh Leatherman, et al are on a higher plane than the rest of us.” I am saying that most lawmakers have more experience than Mr. Hill, and are better lawmakers for it.

      And again, I have high hopes that he will be a lot better when he gets this session under his belt. I’ve Googled him and read up on him a little, and I think he’s sincere about wanting to be a good representative who has the best interests of the state at heart.

      Of course, sometimes I’m wrong about that. When Nikki Haley was about this age and just about this naive, I had high hopes for her, and endorsed her over a lawmaker who was either the longest-serving or ONE of the longest serving in the House. He was someone who had, unfortunately, NOT made good use of his time to become a better lawmaker. In that case (just not in every case), a new broom is called for, if the new broom seems like someone who will turn out better than the old veteran.

      Unfortunately, Nikki had a rather stubborn streak, and refused to become wiser with experience. She embraced her naivete like a badge of honor, which made her highly attractive to the surly populists of the Tea Party. So she became governor when she was nowhere near ready for anything like that kind of responsibility.

      That said — and I think I’ve mentioned this before — while I don’t think she got much better during her years in the House, I think she HAS matured noticeably as governor. Sure, she still does some things that involve elevating hothouse ideology over pragmatic governance (her proposal to allow $3.5 billion worth of needed road improvements only if she gets $8.5 billion in unneeded tax cuts), but I’m impressed by her efforts to improve educational opportunity for kids in poor, rural districts, and her more mature approaches to dealing with lawmakers in order to get things done.

      Anyway, I’m rambling now. You know how us old fogeys are. What are you doing on my lawn, anyway?

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      And let me quickly say that some of Mr. Hill’s questions are perfectly good questions, if asked of someone else in a different context. Such as “Do you see any conflict of interest allowing legislators who are practicing attorneys to vote in your race?”

      On one level, that’s sort of like asking, “Do you have any objections to any of the people who hold your fate in their hands?” Actually, it’s JUST like that…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      And Doug, you don’t ask those questions of candidates because you don’t ask a judge, or a potential judge, to comment in advance on how he or she would rule on a particular kind of case.

      Some of our lawyers can probably explain that better, though. Bryan? Kathryn?…

    4. Brad Warthen Post author

      Doug, I really think that if you sat through a few hundred candidate endorsement interviews — or just a few dozen — you would come to see experience as having value. It’s not the end-all-and-be-all. But it’s one of a number of positive characteristics that a candidate might have.

      Sometimes, of course, it’s possible to have TOO MUCH experience, as was the case the last time Grady Patterson ran for office. As some of you will recall, I demonstrated this by posting video from his interview, which made it painfully clear that it was time for him to take a well-deserved retirement.

      Grady was a much better man than his opponent, the brash Thomas Ravenel. But at least Ravenel came across as someone who was up to the job, as Grady no longer was…

    5. Kathryn Fenner

      Doug, the article clearly explains why these questions are off-base. Maybe you could read it?

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        “Candidates for judgeships are barred ethically from responding to some of the questions, said University of South Carolina law school ethics expert Greg Adams, referencing the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

        “Answering these questions amounts to a promise to decide future cases in accordance with this political pledge,” Adams said.

        Adams also said some of the questions amount to a religious test to hold public office, barred by the U.S. Constitution.

        Read more here:

      2. Doug Ross

        I read the article. I don’t think the some of the questions are out of bounds. And the ones that ARE considered out of bounds are because of arbitrary “ethics” codes that are a joke when you consider the behavior of members of the court system. There’s what is written down on paper and then there are the real rules (i.e. if you are higher in the system, you can use your influence to make things happen or avoid being treated like regular members of society).

        All I can say is that the state government we have right now is the output of a handful of the most “experienced” legislators. If you value experience in that position then you should appreciate our state government as the product of the “best and the brightest” we have and not complain about it.

        I guess it takes years of experience to become an effective legislator like Bobby Harrell or Vincent “I can get one bill passed per decade” Sheheen.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Doug, neither our experienced legislators nor our inexperienced ones are “the best and the brightest” of South Carolina’s people. I think far too many people who SHOULD run for office simply don’t. Part of that is that they don’t want to run the intrusive, humiliating gantlet that we in the media, and political opponents, impose on them (or rather, the gantlet that they fear based on the excesses of inside-the-Beltway media and partisans).

          Another reason they don’t run is because of cynics like you. Why try when a significant portion of the population will always ascribe bad motives to what you do?

          But I also think we in the media bear a lot of responsibility for having made so many people so cynical. Maybe not you, but others.

          That said, I continue to believe that whether they’re the best and brightest or not, sincere people who put themselves out there and run deserve a lot of credit for doing so. And there are a lot of people in that category.

          And SOME of them are among “the best and brightest.” I would put Vincent in that category. He’s not a brilliant campaigner, or even a moderately good one. But he’s very smart, very knowledgable, and he’s a good lawmaker.

          And he’s VERY effective for a guy who has spent his career in the minority. Your taunt of “I can get one bill passed per decade” is very unfair. As I’ve pointed out, he was probably the most personally effective of our 170 lawmakers last session

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Of course, if all he did in a decade was get the Legislature to go along with the reform doing away with the Budget and Control Board, he would still be a standout.

            I have never in my life seen a body more resistant to meaningful change (it’s built into its structure as well as its political culture) that the SC Legislature. A change such as this — which involved legislators giving up executive power (power they should never have had, but in SC had ALWAYS had) — is truly a rare thing…

          2. Doug Ross

            I wasn’t born a cynic. I am a product of watching a bunch of corrupt people create an inefficient system over several decades.

  2. Matt Bohn

    Pandering to his base.

    9. religion
    14. state’s rights
    15. activist judges
    19. capital punishment
    21. abortion
    24. gay marriage
    25. guns

    Any guesses on how he views each issue himself?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, I don’t think he’s pandering to anyone. I think he sincerely wants answers to those questions himself — I think he’s trying to take his responsibility as an elector of judges seriously — and he just did not realize how inappropriate it was to ask such things…

      1. Matt Bohn

        But we are all talking about him. Without his red meat questionnaire he wouldn’t be on our radar. Mission accomplished.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Which is what Todd Rutherford said.

      And I liked what Judicial Merit Selection Commission chairman Larry Martin said: ““I don’t expect a young House member that has never been exposed to that to know that right out of the gate, but he’s learning and he will learn.”

      1. Doug Ross

        The old dogs always get snippy when the young pups are around. It’s painful to be reminded on a daily basis of what you once were.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, I was pretty obnoxious as a young pup.

          I don’t think you would have wanted to vote for me when I was 29. I think more people would be able to stomach me now…

  3. M.Prince

    Actually, the first question listed may have merit – at least in terms of the article of the SC State Constitution cited, which reads:

    “No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”

    Personally, I find such a religious qualification for office offensive and would like to see it removed. But given that it does exist, Rep. Hill’s question appears to be valid.

    To your larger point, however, experience certainly plays a role. But so does background. I think it was in one of Ms. Scoppe’s editorials where it was pointed out that, whereas the state legislature once suffered from an overabundance of lawyers among its ranks, it now may suffer from a dearth of the same — the result being poorly formulated bills, some of which even became law.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      But as the article notes, the SC qualification for office is federally unconstitutional, which trumps it.

      1. M.Prince

        True. But Rep. Hill either doesn’t know that (which speaks to the point) or doesn’t accept it. Likewise with the legislators who put the article in place, either they didn’t properly appreciate how problematic it would be — or didn’t care and were simply keen to make a statement, regardless of its legal value.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Well, yeah. The article points out how gingerly the issue is skirted. It would political suicide in most, if not all, districts, to champion removing that from our laws. Let SCOTUS handle it, if and when it becomes an actual case or controversy–a much safer stance.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      M., I suppose you’re right that within the law as it stands, the beginning of that question: “Do you believe in the “Supreme Being” (SC Constitution, Article VI, Section 2)?” can be seen as germane. Sort of like asking whether you presently hold another public “office of honor or profit.”

      But when you ask, “What is the nature of this being?” you’re implying a religious test that (I hope) would not pass muster, because it implicitly asks what KIND of believer you are.

      As for, “What is your personal relationship to this being?” — that’s a construction you would not hear from anyone but a Southern Baptist (Mr. Hill is, of course, a Baptist) or similar evangelical, which makes the question even MORE specific as to particular beliefs, in addition to revealing a great deal about the questioner.

      As for “What relevance does this being have on the position of judge? Please be specific,” I could be VERY specific — I would say (if I would answer the questionnaire, which I wouldn’t) — “None — beyond the first prerequisite you cite, which is itself problematic.”

  4. Doug Ross

    One component of the “good old boys” system of government is to gang up on the new legislators who don’t or won’t conform to the rules. Put junior in his place until he learns to play along with the OG (as Mia McLeod calls them). If you still have your prostate, you’re not ready for the legislature.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “One component of the ‘good old boys’ system of government is to gang up on the new legislators who don’t or won’t conform to the rules.”

      No. I realize that to a lot of people looking in from the outside — particularly those who think governmental service is inherently a corrupting influence — but that’s generally not the case.

      The Mia example is a good one for demonstrating how complex things are. She’s RIGHT that some of the people are an entrenched Old Guard who believe they have a right to use and abuse patronage. At least, that was the case with the election commission scandal. At the same time, she is someone who would be a LOT more effective if she would occasionally express herself with more diplomacy and decorum. Not every issue is a matter of storming the Bastille. Sometimes you sort of should leave the pitchfork at home…

  5. Bryan Caskey

    I hadn’t had much time for blogging this week; it’s been a litigation heavy week. However, I did get a chance to read this story this afternoon. If I had some free time, I would have written a blog post very similar to this one.

    Long story – short: The questions were not appropriate, because as the piece (and Kathryn) explained, the ethical rules prohibit the judicial candidates from answering certain kinds of questions. Also, some of the questions were just…not very good questions.

    For instance, his question of “Does the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution apply only to the militia and military, or to the people at large?” I would think you could simply answer by citing to DC vs. Heller and stating that it’s the law of the land at this point, regardless of what [judicial candidate] happens to think.

    That’s not so problematic of a question, but it’s also not a very incisive question if I answer it like that, is it?

    Here’s a bad question:

    “Given a case where a local gun restriction ordinance was being challenged, would you uphold the ordinance or strike it down? What factors would play into that decision?”

    First of all, anyone who reads my comments with any regularity knows that I’m really a big gun rights advocate. I’m a hardliner on that particular issue. Some of y’all probably think I’m a little extreme in my position on gun rights. So let me tell you this. You ready? Even for a pro-gun person like me, the answer to the first part of that question is Well…it depends.

    My personal views with what policy should be have nothing to do with what the law is. It’s possible that a “local gun restriction ordinance” would be completely valid. It’s possible that it may not be valid. Would I strike it down or uphold it? Well, I guess it depends on what exactly we’re talking about. You know, it depends.

    What factors would play into that decision? My response: “The law, as applied to the facts of each particular case.”

    See the problem with the question, now?

    When I was reading these questions, I was also struck by how Mr. Hill thought these questions were sufficiently shrouded in mystery that it wouldn’t be possible to see where he’s going with them. I may do a whole post on how the relationship of judges and politics is a bad thing, with a good quote from Scalia. I don’t have time now, though. For now, that goes in the big pile of topics I need to blog on, but don’t have time.

    Anyway, I’m glad no one answered the questions. I wish a staffer would have saved Mr. Hill from himself, in this instance, though.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And I think that if he does draw up a list of questions in the future (I wouldn’t in his place, but he may — he seems the earnest sort who LIKES doing homework), he’ll discreetly run it by some staffers of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission first, and heed their expert advice. Because, as I say, experience is a great teacher…

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, when I wanted to respond, “Well, I certainly hope so!” to the assertion that my colleagues and I “understand this better than a lot of legislators,” I meant just that.

    I CERTAINLY didn’t mean I understood things better than ALL legislators, because there are quite a few who have a more intimate knowledge of a wide range of issues than I did. And almost every lawmaker understood SOME issues better than I did, depending on their experience and interest.

    But if, after years of doing what I did, I did not understand a given issue better than “a lot” of lawmakers, I had been wasting my time… Because in the natural course of things, a lot of them knew very little about a lot of things…

  7. Karen Pearson

    If a person seeking to become a member of the state supreme court answered those questions honestly and openly, it wouldn’t matter if Rep. Hill’s intentions were simply to better understand the candidates. Any answer other than an ultraconservative one would guarantee that a goodly number of our legislators would make sure that candidate didn’t get the appointment.

  8. Mark Stewart

    Home schooled. Never attended college. Never left Anderson County. Found Jesus Christ, who saved him from eternal damnation in hell for his sins, at age 5! Self-employed (“remote”, ie from home) computer programmer. Founder of the Anderson TEA Party. Political campaign and GOP flunky.

    He may be well-meaning, but as a legislator I would hazard a guess that his aptitude for the role will likely not develop as the citizens of South Carolina might hope. I do appreciate that he did not simply reflexively did in his heels over this brouhaha. So as a person, and as a legislator, that’s an encouraging outlook. I think he deserves a pass on this one.

  9. Abba

    I just looked at Rep. Hill’s Facebook page. He does not appear to have learned much from this episode. Less than 17 hours ago, he posted the following in connection with a news article about his questionnaire: “Our Founding Fathers believed that it was important for elected officials to acknowledge the existence of God, because it is God who will hold us to our oaths of office. If not God, then who?” He needs some competent, non-ideological instruction on constitutional law and basic civics.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      But competent and non-ideological would not compute with someone so biased. He’d dismiss it out of hand.

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