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Despite ethics probe, SC magistrate will remain Chester's chief judge

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Magistrate Angel Underwood (2020_1_2_copy)

Chester County Magistrate Angel Underwood (right) takes the oath of office from Chester County Clerk of Court Sue Carpenter. Underwood will keep her post as chief judge of the county while officials investigate a complaint she misused her position. Provided/ Brian Garner/The (Chester) News & Reporter

COLUMBIA — Magistrate Angel Underwood will keep her post as chief judge of Chester County while officials probe a complaint that she misused that same position to advance the interests of the Sheriff’s Office run by her husband.

In retaining Underwood as Chester’s top jurist in charge of administrative duties, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty suggested he had few better options, noting a lack of experience among the county’s four other magistrates.

“With the exception of Judge Underwood, all of the judges are new and have only been on the job for a few months,” said Beatty, who selects each county's chief magistrate every six months.

That’s because Sen. Mike Fanning, who controls Chester’s judicial appointments, installed four new magistrates last year. The only magistrate he kept was Underwood, despite her previous yearlong suspension over ethics conflicts. The suspension stemmed from her failure to disqualify herself from more than 100 cases involving her husband's department. 

Fanning didn’t return phone messages Thursday. I.S. Leevy Johnson, a Columbia lawyer representing Angel Underwood, declined to comment when reached by phone.

Since her reappointment, Underwood has become the target of a new ethics complaint alleging those issues have persisted. And her husband, Alex "Big A" Underwood, is under federal indictment on separate charges alleging excessive force and other misconduct.

And yet, Angel Underwood’s reappointment last year, which required sign-offs by Gov. Henry McMaster and the S.C. Senate, flew through Columbia.

She wasn’t required to disclose her previous suspension. And state senators, in keeping with a decades-old practice, deferred to Fanning’s magistrate selections, no questions asked.

Those and other revelations surfaced last month in a joint investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica. In 12 of the state's 46 counties, to become a magistrate you need only the approval of a single local senator, the investigation revealed.

The reporting was the catalyst for a bill filed by Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, that proposes the most sweeping reforms to South Carolina’s judicial system in two decades. Among the changes: adding a layer of scrutiny to magistrate appointments that would eliminate the practice of sole senators stocking the bench with their choices.

Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican, added his name as co-sponsor of that bill and filed separate legislation that would require that magistrates disclose disciplinary offenses before their terms can be confirmed.

“It’s important that we know that,” he said. As it stands, flaws in the process allow candidates to bury prior issues.

Underwood is one of roughly a dozen sitting magistrates who preside despite having a disciplinary action by the S.C. Supreme Court on their record.

And, in Underwood's case, The Post and Courier and ProPublica uncovered complaints against her didn't stop there.

While her husband was sheriff, Angel Underwood secretly helped draft a complaint from a top deputy alleging that her fellow judges were unfairly blocking the sheriff's department’s requests for criminal warrants, the investigation found.

The news organizations also reported that the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which receives complaints against the state’s judges, is now investigating formal allegations that Underwood improperly meddled in her husband's criminal cases prior to his indictment.

That ethics complaint, filed by former Magistrate Barbara Cameron, alleges the issues ramped up when Underwood was first elevated to chief magistrate in 2018.

“The appearance of conflict was always present, but things got worse when Judge Angel Underwood was made the Chief Magistrate of the County,” Cameron wrote in her 12-page complaint.

Among Cameron's allegations: The judge held closed-door meetings with sheriff's deputies, unlike any other magistrate. And through the sheriff's Facebook page she helped forward criminal tips to deputies for action.

Underwood’s reappointment this week was “necessary,” Beatty said, to keep the courts running efficiently. And he stressed that the other Chester magistrates requested Underwood remain their chief.

Beatty had considered another Chester magistrate for chief, but that person said they weren’t ready, Beatty said. He declined to identify the magistrate or discuss details.

A chief magistrate’s role is largely administrative and doesn’t include the power to sanction or terminate other judges. But they are critical to the operation of the courts in every county. Among their duties: scheduling bail hearings, handling court accounts and running meetings with their fellow judges.

Another way to put it: They are in charge.

That’s a concern for Sheriff Max Dorsey, appointed as interim Chester sheriff while Alex Underwood’s criminal charges are pending. Dorsey stressed that Angel Underwood no longer presides over criminal cases or considers warrants brought by the sheriff’s department.

But he maintained that until Alex Underwood’s ties to the sheriff’s department are completely severed, his wife’s entanglements with his department will continue.

“She’s the boss of the other magistrates,” Dorsey said. “Where do you draw the line on that conflict?”

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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