Weather won't change jockeying for S.C. Supreme Court chief justice seat
COLUMBIA - Monday's announcement that the General Assembly's legislative session would be canceled this week because of impending snow didn't throw a wet blanket onto the hottest thing going in and around the Statehouse: the election for chief justice of the state's Supreme Court.
The candidates themselves weighed in on the race - and the weather.
The canceled session this week means phone lines will take the place of the House and Senate chambers corners, as legislators were expected to be lobbying each other on behalf of their candidates ahead of a scheduled Feb. 5 joint session winner-take-all vote on the matter.
Chief Justice Jean H. Toal and Associate Justice Costa M. Pleicones have been making their case for the position for weeks. They said it was hard to know what effect, if any, the snow days would have on the race.
Both candidates said they believed they were ahead in the race. It's hard to know because lawmakers count votes and pledge their support in secret. The process is described by statehouse insiders as pure, raw politics, where relationships are tested and arms twisted.
At center stage in the election is age. The state's mandatory retirement age is 72, and many expected Toal, 70, to step aside to allow Pleicones, 69, to serve out the remainder of his career as chief.
Pleicones said in an interview that Toal had told him and others she did not plan to run for the post for a final term. Toal has served as chief justice since 2000.
"She said for years she was not going to run," Pleicones said in an interview. "And now at the last minute she changed her mind. I respect her, I have a great deal of respect for her . but I did not change my mind when she changed hers."
Pleicones said his wide range of experience is why he should be at the helm of the state's judicial system. He has been a prosecutor, public defender, military commander and lawyer, as well as a judge during a more than four decade legal career, he said.
"I know the system from the bottom to the top," he said.
Toal said that she struggled in private with the decision of whether to run again, and extensively weighed the pros and cons. She also addressed those who said she would find a way to serve past the mandatory retirement age of 72.
"There's absolutely nothing unusual or out of the ordinary about the chief serving until their retirement date and that's what I'm doing," Toal said. She said she wants to finish a long-running project to upgrade the state's judicial record system, which she considers a signature achievement. She said she has worked to get many of those records online, and the last step would be to allow attorneys and others to file paperwork electronically.
She also addressed speculation that she would seek to serve past the age of 72. "There's no attempt to parse words. I will retire in December 2015," she said. Reports to the contrary are "absolutely inaccurate. . If I retired I would be off the court," she said.
Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, a chief supporter of Pleicones, said he thought House Speaker Bobby Harrell's decision to cancel the session would give Harrell more time to work the phones for Toal. Harrell is a well-known Toal supporter.
"He's the speaker, he has to stand up front," Rutherford said. "It's easier for us" to lobby for votes, he said.
Harrell declined to address those comments, but his spokesman, Greg Foster, said that the primary consideration in the cancellation is the safety of members who come in from all over the state.
When the Senate made the call early in the day on Monday to cancel the week's session, "the House in typical fashion, mirrored that. Something as political as that would never weigh into the speaker's decision," Foster said.
Toal said she would use the snow days in part to talk to legislators about what she can bring to the court in her last years.
"I'm sure Justice Pleicones will do the same," she said. Pleicones said he would also continue reaching out to lawmakers.
Harrell said he won't be the only one burning up the phone lines.
"The weather simply means Verizon and AT&T are going to make a little more money this week," Harrell said.