Race for Supreme Court chief justice expected to be intense in final day
COLUMBIA - A frenetic lobbying effort on behalf of both candidates running for the top spot on the state's Supreme Court is expected on Tuesday, one day ahead of the Legislature's scheduled winner-take-all vote in a race that has been marked by its intensity and gamesmanship.
Legislators may face a rare, perhaps unprecedented choice on Wednesday: whether to re-elect Chief Justice Jean Toal or appoint Associate Justice Costa Pleicones to replace her.
The process is shrouded in secrecy, even as some lawmakers openly lobby on behalf of their candidates.
"We're in good shape and I'm very confident," Pleicones said.
Toal's feelings were similar. "I feel very encouraged," she said.
Each either didn't know or didn't want to say where the vote stands.
Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, the House minority leader, said that he expects the race to be determined by the end of Tuesday, as he and others work to gain accurate vote totals. Rutherford has been campaigning for Pleicones, and said that some are fearful of voting against a sitting chief justice who might continue on the court.
"It is still looking close, and we will know tomorrow," he said on Monday.
It is customary for one candidate to drop out of the race once it becomes clear where the Legislature stands, so that lawmakers don't have to publicly proclaim their choice and perhaps be on the losing side. Both candidates said Monday that dropping out wasn't in the cards as of yet.
"That's not something I'm looking at at this time," Toal said. Pleicones said he expects a vote.
"I know I won't (drop out)," Pleicones said. "Without any speculation on the nature of the race or the numbers...I can tell you that from my perspective it will go to a vote."
Toal, a respected chief justice who has served on the court 14 years, has said that she would serve on the court until December 2015, when she turns 72, the mandatory retirement age. Pleicones would only serve about a year more, until he turns 72, making the decision a short-lived but difficult one for many legislators.
Pleicones says that many, including him, expected Toal to step down this year. When she didn't, he said that he didn't want to abandon his campaign.
Some believe Pleicones, another long-serving and well-respected judge, has been slighted by Toal's decision not to relinquish the post.
Toal has denied that she promised to step down, and says running for re-election to serve for about a year before retirement is not uncommon. She pointed to five former chief justices she said have done the same.
"What I'm doing is not the unusual. It is the very usual. What is happening with my colleague is what's unusual," Toal said.
Pleicones disagrees. "I feel as if I'm the one who's being challenged," he said. "I had determined to run and was into it. She changed her mind and... in that respect I think she's running against me."
He added: "There isn't any bitterness or rancor. She wants to win and I want to win."
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who has been lobbying for Toal, said he expects his candidate to win. All the same, he said there will be a lot of chatter about the race on the floor of the House once members return to Columbia after an unexpected week off because of the winter weather.
"As I say to folks all the time, whether we're talking about this kind of race or a race for public office ... you don't stop until you cross the finish line," Harrell said. "There will be a lot of people working on both sides."
The race is as political as anything in the Statehouse, observers say. Allegiances and friendships are being tested, and both sides are accusing the other of misrepresenting the vote tally for their candidates - both sides say they're ahead.
The Legislature's unwritten rule is that if a lawmaker commits, even in private, to a candidate, he or she is expected to stand by that commitment. But the level of gamesmanship seems to be particularly high in this race, said Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, who is campaigning for Pleicones.
"The truth is, nobody is bound to anything until they vote," he said.
Interestingly, both candidates will hear a case together before the noon vote on Wednesday. Pleicones noted that it would be an "odd dynamic" but that both have always been courteous and professional.