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SC revisits ethics reform for magistrates, key lawmakers voice support

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SC lawmakers eye latest round of reforms to magistrate system

South Carolina lawmakers submitted the latest round of proposed reforms to the state's magistrate system after The Post and Courier in a joint investigation with ProPublica exposed flaws that provided fertile ground for incompetence and corruption. File

COLUMBIA — Despite a year of delays and an ongoing pandemic, reforming South Carolina’s magistrate system remains top of mind for a group of lawmakers after The Post and Courier exposed how a flawed system of oversight provided fertile ground for incompetence and corruption on the bench.

Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, said he will urge his colleagues in the upper chamber this legislative session to revisit his calls to bolster the legal qualifications for magistrates and add a layer of scrutiny to their appointments.

Another new proposal would do away with loopholes that have allowed magistrates to shield ethical offenses or preside for years despite expired terms.

Those pieces of proposed legislation, part of more than a half-dozen pre-filed bills targeting magistrate reforms, received ringing endorsements in interviews with key members of the S.C. Senate Judiciary Committee, which would review any proposal before a floor vote.

“That’s good stuff,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican and senior committee member. “I’d be for making that a priority.”

A key state House leader, Rep. Murrell Smith, has also indicated that he and his colleagues would welcome reforms that would bolster the legal acumen of the state’s magistrates. Smith, a Republican, is a Sumter attorney and the House’s top budget writer.

For his part, Campsen said he has been eyeing changes to the state’s magistrate appointment processes for years.

Even though the state constitution places appointments in the governor’s hands, in practice the executive office acts as nothing more than a rubber stamp. State senators hold broad authority to hand pick candidates of their choosing, and selections are almost never questioned before they are confirmed in voice votes in the upper chamber.

The process amounts to virtually zero scrutiny for the roughly 300 magistrates around the state who handled hundreds of thousands of criminal and civil cases a year, a joint investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica last year found.

Davis pointed to that reporting as a direct catalyst for his and the other latest proposals for reform.

“Individuals are contacting representatives and senators — that makes its way into prefiled bills,” Davis said. “It’s an indication of the public’s raised awareness.”

The newspaper investigation found that a flaw in the application process removed a requirement for magistrates to disclose if they have been disciplined for misconduct by the state’s judicial watchdog. A dozen sitting judges with prior ethics offenses skated through their last reappointment, no questions asked, the investigation found.

A bill from Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican, aims to close that loophole. His proposal would mandate that a majority of the Senate approve reappointment for any magistrate with a prior offense. Young, also a Judiciary Committee member, told The Post and Courier that more detailed disclosures are essential to selecting qualified jurists.

His bill would also eliminate the practice among senators who have kept magistrates on the bench for years despite expired terms. That has allowed the judges to escape the reappointment process and avoid any questions whatsoever about their service.

The Post and Courier and ProPublica found that roughly a quarter of South Carolina’s magistrates preside in this “holdover” status.

Magistrates are the busiest judges in the state. They sit in judgment on cases involving petty thefts, drunken driving, domestic violence, assaults and disorderly conduct. They also issue arrest warrants, set bail, preside over trials and conduct preliminary hearings to assess if there is sufficient probable cause to support felony charges such as murder, rape and robbery.

Yet the newspaper investigation found that roughly three-quarters of the state’s magistrates are not lawyers and could not represent someone in a court of law — yet they preside over them.

Davis has stressed that the state must bolster its legal qualifications for all magistrates. His proposal would increase their mandatory legal training from its current minimum of 57-and-a-half hours.

By comparison, South Carolina is stricter on its barbers: their training school mandates 1,500 hours.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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