S.C. Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty’s rant against unethical prosecutors at a recent conference has sparked a push by 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and her colleagues to get him disqualified from hearing criminal appeals of their cases.
Thirteen of the state’s 16 solicitors have signed onto a request to have Beatty barred from considering their cases or ruling on grievances against prosecutors. They contend he demonstrated a clear bias against prosecutors in his remarks at a September solicitors’ gathering in Myrtle Beach and cannot be counted upon to be impartial in his rulings.
Wilson led the charge with an Oct. 29 letter asking for the state attorney general’s help in getting Beatty recused from her cases. Others soon followed suit, including 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who stated that Beatty appeared to have “an extreme bias against prosecutors and cannot be objective.”
Neither Beatty nor Chief Justice Jean Toal returned phone calls to The Post and Courier seeking comment Monday, but a group of criminal defense lawyers issued a statement questioning why Beatty’s words struck such a nerve with prosecutors.
“As the saying goes, a hit dog will holler,” the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said.
Beatty, elected to the Supreme Court in 2007, told the audience of prosecutors they had “been getting away with too much for too long” and the high court will no longer turn a blind eye to unethical conduct such as witness tampering, selective and retaliatory prosecutions, perjury and suppression of evidence.
He added that “you better follow the rules or we are coming after you and will make an example,” according a summary of his comments.
“The pendulum has been swinging in the wrong direction for too long and now it’s going in the other direction,” the summary quotes him as saying. “Your bar licenses will be in jeopardy. We will take your license.”
Beatty, a Spartanburg native, recalled a case he handled as a circuit court judge in which a prosecutor kept a man in jail for 18 months hoping to pressure him into a guilty plea. He cited another case of “selective prosecution” in which prosecutors pursued a conviction against a prostitute but gave a free pass to the man who gave her drugs to pay for sex.
“For too long we have looked the other way but that’s over. We are not just going to overturn convictions; we are going to take your licenses,” Beatty told the group.
During his speech, Beatty called out Wilson’s circuit by name, saying two assistant solicitors had recently been suspended there and another case is pending. “There will be more. We are making an example and will continue to do so.”
The comments shocked those in attendance, as did Beatty’s pronouncement that the Supreme Court would vote down as unconstitutional any legislation that emerges giving prosecutors a continuing degree of control over trial scheduling.
The Supreme Court ruled last year that a statute that gave solicitors control over setting criminal dockets was unconstitutional. The court ordered changes to the docket system that would lessen the authority of solicitors to call criminal cases, but the justices suspended those orders within a month after receiving an outpouring of concerns.
State lawmakers are mulling a bill that would allow solicitors to preserve much of their control over the docket, but Beatty told his audience not to waste their time trying to get something passed.
“We have the three votes on the court and we will declare it unconstitutional whatever it is,” Beatty is quoted in the summary as saying. “We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon so you better focus your energy elsewhere.”
Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties, wrote in her letter to state Attorney General Alan Wilson that she took issue with the justice’s “vitriolic tone,” his facts and remarks which appeared to “forecast his rulings in future cases.”
Wilson told the attorney general Beatty’s comments were especially shocking “because they are not true.” She said one prosecutor from her office has been disciplined for communicating with a cousin who was sitting on a jury during a 2007 murder trial, but the high court found no ill-intent on the attorney’s part.
Pascoe, who represents Dorchester County, also wrote the attorney general, stating that Beatty’s remarks call into question his ability to rule impartially in criminal cases and on grievances involving prosecutors.
In a Nov. 21 letter to prosecutors, the attorney general expressed concern over the “unfortunate remarks” made by Beatty and said he is researching the disqualification issue.
In its statement Monday, the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers signaled support for Beatty and questioned why “prosecutors in this state get so upset when they are reminded that they have an ethical duty not to win at any costs, but rather to administer justice.”
The association said the outraged prosecutors would be better served by using Beatty’s remarks “to help them clean up their own houses instead of assailing the integrity of a judge who has shown no sign of anti-prosecutor bias in his rulings.”
Pascoe said the group either didn’t have all the facts or “they are playing a spin game by intentionally misrepresenting the facts.” He said Beatty’s remarks were of enough concern that other Supreme Court justices called solicitors around the state the day after his speech. He would not say which justice contacted him or who else they spoke with.
“This is a serious issue that deserves more than a carelessly put together press release by a few defense attorneys,” he said. “Every defense attorney I have spoken to in the last couple of months shares the same concerns as I do with Justice Beatty’s comments.”
Wilson said others on the high court “certainly understand why the remarks were so highly inappropriate, which makes it even more surprising that (the defense lawyers association) does not.”
State Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he has known Beatty a long time and served with him in the legislature, always considering him to be a thoughtful and restrained individual. But Martin said he was stunned by Beatty’s comments at the conference, which he described as inappropriate and intimidating. “It really upset a lot of folks,” he said.
Martin said he asked three prosecutors to forward independent accounts of what was said, and he then sent those accounts to Toal for consideration.
Martin said there may be isolated cases of prosecutorial misconduct in the state, but “I don’t believe it is a major problem.”
Martin said later Beatty explained to him, in regarding to the docket-control legislation, that he was just trying to point out that efforts to preserve an unconstitutional system would not fare well. But Martin said he did a lousy job of getting that across to his audience.
“It was a very poorly worded commentary,” he said. “You don’t make a decision on a piece of prospective legislation or announce how you are going to rule on it ahead of time.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.