As many news outlets have shown in multiple publications concerning South Carolina and the Commission on Judicial Conduct, corruption is alive and well.
The average South Carolina Citizen is unaware of the fact that Judges in this State are elected by the Legislative Body, which most member are Attorney/Legislators. Specifically these Judges go before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission , created in 1996 by constitutional amendment Referendum 4B , for what can only be called a rehearsed interview. The guidelines are these:
The commission is tasked with notifying the public of judicial vacancies. The vacancy notice must be sent to South Carolina media. Additionally, once candidates have applied, a list is made public of the candidate names in the same way. This list is public to allow members of the general population an opportunity to weigh in on any candidate they feel is unfit for judicial service. They can do this by filing a formal complaint with the commission, but it must be submitted before a deadline also published by the commission.
The commission then evaluates each candidate. This process includes requesting members of the state bar to provide feedback on sitting judges or attorneys who have become candidates for a judicial position. The commission administers a test to candidates to measure their knowledge of court procedure. An interview is also conducted by the Citizens Committee in the geographic region where the candidate would preside if selected. Further, the commission itself also interviews the candidates. If for some reason a matter is raised during the evaluation process that requires further comment from the judicial candidate, this is done in an open, public hearing before the commission. Their comments are recorded, as well.
Once the evaluation process is completed, the commission drafts a report to the South Carolina General Assembly, which details their findings and qualifies certain candidates as fit for judicial service. The report becomes final in 48 hours. The candidates may then openly seek support from members of the General Assembly.
The South Carolina Senate and South Carolina House of Representatives hold a joint session wherein they elect a judge to fill the vacancy. The elected judge must have been qualified for judicial service by the commission. South Carolina is one of two states who uses the merit selection method and has its legislature elect the judge, rather than the governor making the appointment.
This process seems very simple and straight forward until you begin to realize that it’s the lawyers who are picking their own judges. First off let us take a look at the Judicial Merit Commission itself. The commission is composed of 10 members. The speaker of the House and the president of the Senate each appoint five members to the commission. Three of the five must be members of the General Assembly. The other two members are lay persons.
Judicial Merit Commission:
The head of this commission is Senator Luke Rankin, a very controversial Attorney/Legislator, for his involvement in the Santee Cooper issue and his ping pong politics. Sen. Rankin is first and foremost an Attorney out of Conway, and on his law firms page Sen. Rankin brags how his law firm has a 99% success rate in the courts. Sen. Rankin in recent months even compared himself to Jesus Christ for his (miraculous) deal concerning Santee Cooper.
As stated above six of the members of the Commission must be members of the General Assembly, which just happen to be Attorney/Legislators and only 4 are non-attorneys/Legislators. When we talk numbers and stacking the deck, well this is a good example. Six Attorney’s versus four non-attorneys in a voting process to elect judges.
The members of the Commission usually simply ask the candidates the questions from a questionnaire that the candidate had already filled out. Such as are they members of any political groups, or do they profit from cases, etc.. List three cases the candidate feels that were milestone cases in their careers. The candidates are usually asked one legal knowledge question, which they don’t even have to get right.
The Commission is required to wright a report and give each member of the General Assembly a copy on the fitness of the prospective candidate. These reports are given out just before the Joint Assembly and do not ever mention any complaints that were raised against the candidate. A good example of this was back in 2018 with Judge At Large (floating Judge) Monet Pincus. We spoke with several Legislators and told that the report they were handed contained no complaints from citizens on her actions as a Family Court Judge, even though several major complaints were received and stated and even argued at the Judicial interview. Or that two separate hearing were held; one which was open to the public and the other which the Merit Commission held in closed door session which violated their own policy.
And even more recently the Merit Commission ignored and excused complaints on Circuit Court Judge Edward “Ned” Miller. In his interview complaints were raised as to his Judicial Temperament and other aspects. Specifically his handling of the well publicized case of Brenda Bryant, were Judge Miller made Ms. Bryant an enemy of the state. More of that story can be found at MrytleBeachSC.com.
The Citizens Committee:
The Citizens Committee is charged with interviewing the candidates in their geographic areas were they would be sitting Judges. The Committee’s Mission Statement reads:
The decisions of our state’s judiciary affect the property and lives of every citizen
even when they are not parties to an action in the courts. The Judicial Merit
Selection Commission is concerned that since the decisions of our judiciary play
such an important role in people’s personal and professional lives that all South
Carolinians should have a voice in the selection of those judges. It is this desire
for broad-based grassroots participation that has led the Commission to create
the Citizens Committees on Judicial Qualifications. These committees composed
of people from across the societal spectrum (doctors, lawyers, teachers,
businessmen, and advocates) will be asked to advise the Commission on the
judicial candidates in their region. These reports will be based upon interviews
by committee members with people who know the judicial candidates personally
and professionally. Their input will guide the Commission’s investigation of
One of the first things we noticed was the committee is suppose to be comprised of people from across the societal spectrum, but only lists doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, and advocates. Last time we check that demographic was a limited portion of the societal spectrum. Furthermore the Chairs of these regional committees are chosen by the Judicial Merit Selection Chair, which is Sen. Luke Rankin.
The Citizen Committees reports are due to the Merit Commission no later than 5 days prior to the public hearings conducted by the Merit Commission. And should contain the same criteria as the Merit Commission uses. These are Constitutional Qualifications, Ethical Fitness, Professional and Academic Ability, Character, Reputation, Physical Health and Mental Stability, Experience, and Judicial Temperament. But if a report is not received from the Citizens Committee by the Merit Commission the commission will continue with it’s interview of the candidate. A full view of the Citizens Committee Guidelines can be found here in PDF form.
The General Assembly:
The House of Representatives and the Senate hold a joint Assembly to vote on each candidate. In he past several years this has become a heated issue as to the formality used to vote for these candidates. It has been argued that the Joint Assembly is not going by the rules set forth, but instead have chosen to short cut the process. By this we mean that votes in this assembly are to be done by each member on the board showing which why they voted, instead of the used method of simple oral yeas or nays. When one watches this process (which can be viewed on the State Legislative website) one begins to see the issues with this method. Several times this oral process is done so quickly that many Legislators have stated it does not give time for any objections. And this method does not allow the people of South Carolina to see which way a Legislator voted.
In one archived video Rep. Todd Rutherford ( who is also an Attorney/Legislator) can be seen angrily telling another member of the Joint Assembly to sit down preventing this Legislator from objecting to a candidate. Rep. Rutherford also sits on the Judicial Merit Selection Commission along with Sen. Rankin.
In past Judicial Elections held by the Joint Assembly several members of the Black Caucus have walked out in protest for the lack of approval from the Judicial Merit Commission on qualified Black Judges. Also individual of the Joint Assembly have walked out in protest against judge candidates, that members knew not to be qualified for Judicial Service. Members have even walked out stating that the oral method used violates State Laws and that they would not be a part of such corruption.
In a series of articles put out by the Post and Courier a few years back it was shown that Judges and Attorneys have not been held accountable for their mis-actions in South Carolina for nearly the past 10 years. To date there have been no reprimands made on a Judge for what some would call major legal malpractices, outside the occasional form letter sent.
This leaves the citizens of South Carolina without any real or legal recourse when a Judge violates his Oath of Office or shows favoritism to a particular lawyer, or even ignores the law completely.
This is not to say that there aren’t good, honest Judges in South Carolina, who truly do dispense justice by the law of the State and not by the law of the person who put them in office. South Carolina’s Judicial System is viewed by many out of state officials as backwards, corrupt and out of date. Many of the Appeals cases involving state judges or officials remain unpublished, but easily looked up.
All complaints on Judges are referred to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which in itself is a major wrench in the machine. The Commissions only function is to hold Judges accountable for their actions or failure of, but fails to do so out of political pressure. Once a complaint is received a form letter is sent to the complaining party stating an investigation has been started. But then usually 45 – 60 days later a second form letter is sent finding no evidence of any misconduct on behalf of the judge. These letters also state the words FINAL DECISION on them.
In many cases the complaining party sent the evidence of the misconduct to the Commission on Judicial Conduct such as violations of Canons (Judicial Ethics Guidelines) or hearing transcripts, and even orders that show clear violations committed by these judges. But we also need to remark here that Judges in South Carolina have a secret weapon against complaints. “Judicial immunity” is a form of sovereign immunity, which protects judges and others employed by the judiciary from liability resulting from their judicial actions.
The only recourse many South Carolina Citizens have is to take their complaint to Federal Courts and argue the Constitutional or Civil rights violations many Judges have committed, at a very high dollar amount.