S.C. Supreme Court replaces Charleston County Chief Magistrate Gosnell

Charleston County Chief Magistrate James Gosnell has been replaced, according to a S.C. Supreme Court order.

The chief magistrate widely criticized for soliciting sympathy for the family of a man accused of fatally shooting nine people during a Bible study last week has been replaced, according to a Wednesday order from the S.C. Supreme Court.

The order states that Charleston County Magistrate Ellen Steinberg is appointed chief judge for administrative purposes of the summary courts for Charleston County. It was issued by Chief Justice Jean Toal and is to take effect immediately.

The order does not state the reason behind Toal’s decision and she has not returned a request for comment.

Gosnell, who has a history of participating in Confederate re-enactments and using racial slurs, declined to comment. His attorney, Lionel Loften, said the magistrate notified Toal on Tuesday that he did not want to be reconsidered for chief magistrate. His term was set to expire Tuesday.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Rosalyn Frierson would not say if Gosnell was replaced because of his remarks at a bond hearing last week for Dylann Roof, who is charged with nine counts of murder and one county possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony stemming from the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“There are victims on this young man’s side of the family,” Gosnell said at the start of the hearing. “We must find it in our heart at some point in time to not only help those who are victims but to also help his family as well.”

Lofton said Tuesday that his client’s words show only that he understands the predicament of everyone touched by the shooting.

When asked Wednesday if Gosnell did not seek reappointment as chief justice because of the controversy surrounding his remarks, Lofton said “no.”

“He had just decided he was tired of being chief magistrate,” he added.

Lofton said Gosnell will remain a magistrate judge. Magistrates like him are appointed to four-year terms by the governor to handle bond hearings and low-level criminal trials. They are not required to have a law degree. Gosnell, who is not a lawyer, typically presides over preliminary hearings.

His statement last week drew rebukes from observers nationwide, including an attorney for one victim’s family who attended the proceeding.

Andy Savage, a family friend and attorney for shooting survivor Felicia Sanders, whose son died in the attack, said Wednesday that he did not think Gosnell should be removed from his top post because of his comments.

His words did not affect the victims’ families, who have moved on from what happened during the bond hearing, Savage said.

Savage has known Gosnell for years, once serving as the magistrate’s attorney during a disciplinary proceeding over Gosnell’s use of the N-word. But Savage said the proceeding last week was not a forum for “social or political commentary.”

“What he said wasn’t evil. It wasn’t hurtful. It was just inappropriate,” he said. “I don’t think it was thought through. I think he just got caught up in the moment. ... But I don’t see any reason for him to be removed over this.”

Critics on cable news networks and local activists said Gosnell’s words exposed an ugly root of racial bias in South Carolina. His speech also prompted a closer examination of his past.

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, was not impressed Wednesday by the news of his replacement.

“I don’t see where that changes a situation where minorities come under him and he (makes decisions about them),” she said, raising concern about Gosnell. “I think the proper thing to do is not to have him on the bench at all.”

Frank McCann, a Charleston attorney and former president of the S.C. Bar Association, said Gosnell didn’t deserve the criticism he has received.

“Judges are not allowed to respond to criticism,” McCann said. “Judge Gosnell for more than 25 years, 24 hours a day, has dedicated his life to Charleston County and enjoyed a fine reputation.”

Steinberg was associate chief magistrate before the appointment. The court named Wadmalaw/Johns Island Magistrate Leroy Linen as her replacement.

Steinberg, who used to be a 9th Circuit assistant solicitor designated lead prosecutor in criminal domestic violence court, did not respond to a message requesting comment about her appointment.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson called Steinberg an “excellent addition to our magistrate bench” and will make a “fantastic chief judge.”

She said Steinberg was a “tremendous help” as assistant solicitor in efforts to centralize domestic violence prosecutions.

“She is extremely efficient and organized so she will handle her new responsibilities well, I’m sure,” she added.

Andrew Knapp contributed to this report. Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughton.