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4 state representatives walk out of judicial election assembly, calling it a 'sham'

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Screening panel selects 3 candidates for SC Supreme Court (copy)

The South Carolina judicial system is the target of several pieces of legislation proposing reforms during the 2019-20 legislative session. The efforts come in the wake of reporting by The Post and Courier and ProPublica, which exposed an insular system for selecting and policing the state's judges. File

Four state lawmakers stormed out of a judicial election assembly in protest Wednesday, calling the selection of judges without formal roll call votes a "sham" that violates South Carolina's constitution. 

State Reps. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson; Josiah Magnuson, R-Spartanburg; Stewart Jones, R-Laurens; and Adam Morgan, R-Greenville, denounced the Legislature's long-held practice of electing judges by simple voice votes that don't record the stance of individual lawmakers.

The practice is just one part of the unusual, secrecy-shrouded selection process for state judges that minimizes public input and accountability, The Post and Courier and ProPublica revealed in a joint investigation last year. 

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states with legislative election of judges.

The four protesting lawmakers said the state constitution requires the election of judges be on the record, necessitating a roll call that documents the vote of each lawmaker. In a Facebook live video, the four legislators called the election a farce and said they would not participate unless reforms were made. The elections then proceeded without them. 

“We’ve got to have a judicial selection process that is legal, that is constitutional and that is moral, and right now we have none of those," Hill said.

Eighteen judicial seats were open, but there were no contested races due to several candidates dropping out. Lawmakers who select judges often quietly secure commitments for preferred candidates ahead of the elections — and candidates who don't have that support are typically expected to drop their bid. Wednesday's votes were expected to be perfunctory. 

Hill tried to force recorded roll call votes on each of the seven judicial races which were originally contested before the contenders dropped out of the race. He said Senate President Harvey Peeler honored his request for a roll call vote on the election of one circuit court judge, but ignored his subsequent efforts to have those votes placed on the record.

After Peeler refused to recognize him, Hill said, he walked out, followed by three other lawmakers.

In the Facebook live video, Magnuson said he could not stand to see Hill "steamrolled" during the session.

"If we’re gonna have farcical judicial elections, I’m not gonna participate," he said.

Peeler could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, a Myrtle Beach Republican who’s also chairman of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, challenged the notion that Wednesday's elections violated the constitution.

“The playbook of Rep. Hill has been not one of change but impediment and/or obstructionism," he said. "The whole goal was just to delay the ultimate result and to put the House through the paces of a slow, drawn-out, futile process to get to the same result."

For years, Statehouse judicial elections have occurred with no public debate and candidates are elevated to the bench through cursory votes. Incumbents and candidates for those seats are first screened by the 10-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

Defenders of the system insist there’s nothing wrong with legislators lining up votes or suggesting candidates withdraw to spare them the potential embarrassment of a loss.

“It’s just like a bill — if you’ve got one and nobody likes it, why do we have to waste our time voting on it?” Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and House minority leader, recently told The Post and Courier.

Rankin said South Carolina's system works better than having judicial candidates chase campaign money and votes through a general election, as is done in other states, "with no kick in the tire by those in the judicial communities who would know better whether someone’s being a populist or has true legal credentials to sit on the bench.”

But some lawmakers decry the process. They say it shuts the public out of the selection process for some of the state’s most consequential public officials. The state’s circuit judges preside over all felony and major civil cases.

Hill has added his name to a bill filed by Morgan that would ban judicial commitments altogether. The proposed legislation, filed Jan. 28, would prohibit lawmakers from encouraging or pressuring judicial candidates to withdraw.

Morgan said he drafted his legislation after he was approached by constituents who read the investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica into the state's system for selecting and policing judges. 

"It brought much more public attention to the issue and had more constituents wanting to push for reforms," he said.

The reporting revealed how the system, steeped in politics, had undercut transparency and accountability. Among other things, the news organizations found that the state’s circuit judges have faced more than 1,000 ethics complaints, yet not a single one had been publicly disciplined, suspended or removed in almost 30 years.

Hill said reports from The Post and Courier and ProPublica helped spur him and other new lawmakers to take action.

"I think more attention has been brought to this issue than ever before. I’m seeing an increased willingness to talk about it," he said.

Glenn Smith and Seanna Adcox contributed to this story. 

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

Fleming Smith covers crime and public safety for the Charleston area. A native Georgian, she previously covered breaking news and features for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Joseph Cranney is an investigative reporter in Columbia, with a focus on government corruption and injustices in the criminal legal system. He can be reached securely by Proton mail at jcranney@prontonmail.com or on Signal at 215-285-9083.

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