Conferees explore lack of judicial diversity
CHARLESTON - The few hundred who gathered Friday in Charleston for a conference on judicial diversity seemed to agree that increasing the number of blacks and women who serve as South Carolina judges is an important goal, but there appeared to be little consensus over what could be done to make that happen -- other than letting time pass.
South Carolina has a national reputation for having a judiciary "somewhat incestuous with the Legislature," said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. As a result, it's not surprising that it has relatively few black and female judges, given that the General Assembly also is dominated by white males.
But the Brennan Center's recent 10-state study on judicial diversity showed that many other states are grappling with the same lack of diversity.
The League of Women Voters of South Carolina sponsored Friday's conference because of the nonprofit group's belief that a more diverse judiciary would increase the independence of -- and public confidence in -- the court system.
South Carolina has an unusual way of picking judges. A panel of six lawmakers and four others first screens candidates to deem them qualified. It then submits at least three names to stand for election before the state's 124 House members and 46 senators.
University of South Carolina law professor John Freeman, who also is a member of the state's Judicial Merit Selection Commission, said the state judges are qualified. He defended the system, saying, "It can be improved, but it's not a bad system at all."
He noted one gubernatorial candidate -- he didn't mention Republican Nikki Haley by name -- would be found unqualified to be a judge because she has been fined for paying her personal income taxes late.
"How would you like someone like that picking judges?" he asked. "Forget it."
The league is not pushing for a radical overhaul of the state's system, such as establishing quotas or having judges elected by voters or even expanding the governor's role.
Instead, it held the conference to raise awareness and explore smaller solutions, such as increasing diversity on the Judicial Merit Selection Commission or tweaking the way judicial candidates campaign among lawmakers.
Former Family Court Judge Charlie Segars-Andrews, whose ruling in one case caused the commission to vote 9-1 to find her unqualified (Freeman cast the sole nay vote), said the biggest obstacle to a fair and balanced judiciary was not diversity but fear about what happened to her.
"Every judge is afraid they might lose their job as I did," she said. While she currently is in private practice in Mount Pleasant and considers her rejection "ancient history," she added, "I hope it won't be ancient history in the public, and I hope something is done about it so we'll have a fair and balanced judiciary."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.