COLUMBIA— Associate Justice Costa Pleicones told a panel on Tuesday that he has both the experience and desire to step up to the top position on South Carolina’s Supreme Court, stressing his willingness to follow the law even if it means he often dissents from the majority.
In her own pursuit for another term, Chief Justice Jean Toal told the same panel that she has a proven track record leading the state’s $61 million court system and said she needs more time to see some long-term projects through to fruition.
Both justices appeared Tuesday before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a 10-member panel that determines if candidates are qualified for the posts they seek. Having been through the screening process already, sitting judges are nearly always approved.
State lawmakers, who return to Columbia in January for a new session, will vote later to select the state’s judges, a process in which lobbying can become heated.
Pleicones surprised many in South Carolina’s legal community when he announced earlier this year that he would challenge Toal for the court’s top spot. The two have served alongside each other since 2000, when Toal became chief justice after 12 years on the court. Pleicones — then a circuit court judge — was elected to serve the rest of her unexpired term.
During a half-hour before the panel, Pleicones stressed his legal experience at every level, having served as a military prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, but also said it’s time for change at the top.
“I think that a fresh perspective is beneficial to any business ... from time to time,” Pleicones told the panel. “I am prepared for this mission.”
Pleicones often dissents from the high court’s majority, an action that garnered a criticism of contrarianism from one of the more than 1,100 survey responses received by the panel about his candidacy. Calling himself a “model of judicial restraint,” Pleicones noted that many of the dissents for which he is known have ultimately become the basis for the court’s majority opinions in subsequent years.
“I believe that I was elected by this General Assembly to conscientiously voice my opinion ... and not simply to go along to get along,” Pleicones said. “There is no place for rudeness in writing. There is no place for rudeness in person.”
Toal, who told the panel she “agonized” over the decision to seek another term, said she needs a few more years leading South Carolina’s court system to wrap up major projects like a statewide system for filing court documents electronically.
Modernizing the state’s court system has been a priority of Toal’s during her 13 years at its helm, and she told the panel she also would like more time to make the state’s court reporting system more digitized and finish overseeing renovations at the state’s appellate courts.
“I hope that, in the next two years, if I’m given the opportunity, that I will be able to put the capstone on a good many projects ... that would modernize the court system of South Carolina,” Toal said.
Toal also took issue with criticism that she is at times unnecessarily harsh on attorneys appearing before her in court. Those who end up on the losing side of an appeal often misplace their frustration by criticizing the court itself, she said.
“I am not perfect,” Toal said. “To the extent that anyone feels that I have ever tried to demean them, I’m sad for that. ... My role and my attitude toward those who appear before me is respectful, very much so.”
The panel also questioned Toal about a 2007 traffic ticket she received for a hit-and-run collision at a Columbia Metropolitan Airport parking lot. Toal said she sideswiped a parked car but, noticing no damage, went on to an appointment. She later paid a $257.50 ticket.
Whichever justice is elected, his or her time as chief will be limited by simple mathematics. South Carolina has a mandatory judicial retirement age of 72. Toal turned 70 this year. Pleicones is 69.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP