Judge's rating remains the same

Judge Segars-Andrews

COLUMBIA -- Family Court Judge F.P. Segars-Andrews, who has faced criticism for an ethical breach in her handling of a Clarendon County divorce case, may have to leave the bench after her term expires next year.

The state's Judicial Merit Selection Review Commission decided Wednesday not to reconvene and revisit its Nov. 5 decision that found her unqualified to serve.

The commission's decision means that state lawmakers won't be able to consider reappointing her to a fresh six-year term.

Segars-Andrews showed little emotion after the meeting, and her attorney, Tim Madden of Greenville, said they would have no comment. "Because of the nature of this process, it's not appropriate to comment," he said.

The only good news for her was that two commissioners changed their vote Wednesday, leaving the current tally at seven members who feel she's unqualified and three who feel she is. The Nov. 5 vote was 9-1.

In 2006, Segars-Andrews declined to disqualify herself from a divorce case even after she learned late in the case that the lawyer for the ex-wife, Becky Simpson, had shared in a large sum with a lawyer who worked in the same firm as Segars-Andrews' husband, Mark Andrews.

Some legal experts defended her decision to rule in the case, saying there was no bias, and the S.C. Court of Appeals agreed. Others have criticized her judgment, saying it is essential that those who go to court feel that their judge is unbiased.

William Simpson, who filed a complaint about Segars- Andrews to the Judicial Conduct Commission, attended Wednesday's meeting and was upbeat after her unqualified rating didn't change, even as several dozen Charleston-area lawyers appeared in a show of support.

Simpson said the commission has given him a measure of justice that he wasn't able to find in the courts or before the state's Judicial Conduct Commission, where Segars-Andrews has served as the vice chairwoman.

"I'm very relieved that they stuck to their guns and they weren't swayed or persuaded by that whole system that was in there tonight," Simpson said, referring to the judge's Lowcountry supporters.

The commission's finding will not be formalized until the middle of next month, leaving a ray of hope that more commissioners could change their vote -- and the judge's rating -- between now and then.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, who serves as the commission's chairman, said the vote will stand unless a majority of the commission "decides it wants to go a different way."

Segars-Andrews' supporters will have a tricky time lobbying commissioners to change their mind.

McConnell, R-Charleston, told the crowd that the commission's position is that it's not proper for people to contact them while they are considering a judge's qualifications.

He also indicated that it's unlikely that the commission will tackle her rating again, telling his colleagues, "For you to change your vote, you must speak now."

Segars-Andrews addressed the commission, thanking it for its work and apologizing for anything that she or her husband said during or after the commission's meeting last month.

"Mostly, I want to apologize for not being prepared for the hearing last month," she said, adding that she was advised not to bring witnesses or an attorney.

She also apologized to Simpson, saying that she pondered over her ruling for a long time before deciding that the appearance of a conflict wasn't enough to offset the added expense and inconvenience of redoing the two-day trial.

"Should I be faced with similar facts in the future, if you give me a chance, I certainly will handle the matter differently," she said. "Mr. Simpson probably will never understand that he got a fair trial, and I'm sorry for that."

Segars-Andrews, who has more than 16 years experience, talked about her work with the Charleston County juvenile drug court, the former auxiliary probation officer program and a father-to-father initiative, but the commissioners were interested only in receiving more information about the Simpson case.

They specifically wanted new affidavits from James McLaren, the lawyer who represented Simpson's ex-wife, and from law professor Nathan Crystal, former Judge William Howard and another lawyer who reviewed the case.

After reading the four affidavits, state Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, and Camden lawyer Amy Johnson McLester changed their votes from unqualified to qualified.

University of South Carolina professor emeritus John Freeman, the judge's sole supporter on the commission last month, moved to reopen her hearing, but his motion died for lack of a second.

In South Carolina, state lawmakers elect judges, but ever since 1996, candidates for the bench first have to be found qualified by the commission.