Post and Courier
December 18, 2014

Judging the judge

Posted: 12/04/2013 12:01 a.m.

Publicly berating the state’s solicitors for bad behavior is hardly what you’d expect from a distinguished justice of the honorable S.C. Supreme Court.

But at a conference in September, Associate Justice Donald W. Beatty gave the solicitors and their assistants a piece of his mind. And in doing so the judge asserted that he and his colleagues on the court have turned a blind eye to questionable, even unethical, actions by solicitors for years.

We’d like to hear what Chief Justice Jean Toal has to say about that.

Another shocker: Justice Beatty announced how he would rule on an issue that has yet to be brought to the court.

Solicitors from across the state who heard him were, not surprisingly, stunned and intimidated.

Thirteen of the state’s 16 solicitors have since asked that Justice Beatty be recused from appeals that involve criminal cases from their respective circuits. Further, they want him recused from ruling on any disciplinary matters involving them or their staff.

“One can only conclude ... that he has an extreme bias against prosecutors and cannot be objective,” 1st Circuit Solicitor David M. Pascoe wrote to S.C. Attorney General Alan M. Wilson.

At the least, Justice Beatty undermined his credibility by vowing to rule against any legislative effort to give solicitors more control over the court docket. “We will declare it unconstitutional, whatever it is.” Maybe they will. But Justice Beatty doesn’t speak for the court.

Attorney General Wilson called Mr. Beatty’s remarks “unfortunate” and “inappropriate.”

State Sen. Larry Martin, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Beatty’s performance was “inappropriate and intimidating.”

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson declared some of the judge’s comments “not true” and justly complained about his “vitriolic tone.”

Justice Beatty made heads snap when he said solicitors abuse their power, choose unfairly which cases to prosecute, tamper with and intimidate witnesses, and violate perjury laws.

His comments were even more lamentable because, if there is any substance to his allegations of unethical and illegal behavior, he has put himself in a difficult position to do anything about it. He will be, and should be, discounted as prejudiced.

Justice Beatty’s concerns about how the court docket is set are legitimate. The Supreme Court ruled last year that state law giving solicitors control over the docket is unconstitutional, provoking their outcry.

Mr. Beatty contends that solicitors have abused that authority by refusing to set a court date in hopes of driving a defendant in jail to plead guilty.

Certainly a law that allows such tactics needs to be reviewed and modified. South Carolina is one of the last states to use this system.

But it is reasonable to question whether Justice Beatty should be part of any decisions related to that subject. He has, after all, already proclaimed what his decision would be.

Judges are, and should be, held to a high standard. And they should impose high standards on their courts. Prosecutors and defendants both deserve fair treatment from the bench.

Justice Beatty clearly feels passionately about the judicial system in South Carolina and seeing that it functions fairly.

But as a justice, he must not just be fair but also avoid any appearance of being unfair. And in this instance, Justice Beatty fell short of the standard the public expects from the state’s highest court.