Move called overreaction

Segars-Andrews

The possibility that family court Judge F.S. "Charlie" Segars-Andrews could lose her job because of a ruling in a divorce case shows how broken the state's system of judicial review is, an expert said.

Segars-Andrews, who lives in Mount Pleasant and has served as a family court judge for more than 16 years, is scheduled to reappear before the state's Judicial Merit Selection Commission on Wednesday in a high-stakes hearing.

She will ask the commission to hear more information in hopes it will change its Nov. 7 vote finding her "unqualified" to continue to serve.

If the commission agrees, Segars-Andrews can make her case in more detail at a later date. If it does not, the Legislature cannot reappoint her next year.

Her future is in jeopardy because of a single ruling in a Clarendon County divorce case two years ago in which she acknowledged she had a conflict and intended to recuse herself but later changed her mind, and ruled in the case.

Dr. Gregory Adams, a University of South Carolina law professor who focuses on judicial ethics, said Segars-Andrews erred in that ruling, an error that she later admitted. But failing to reappoint her because of the error would be a tragic overreaction.

"We don't get better judges by kicking people off the bench because they made one mistake that upset someone so much that they made a

big stink about it," Adams said. "We need judges to be independent and not make decisions based upon what important political people on the Judicial Merit Selection Commission might do in grandstanding before the TV camera."

Adams said he plans to attend Segars-Andrews' hearing Wednesday, as does William R. Simpson of Manning, a divorced father of two whose grievance against the judge led to the commission's original vote.

In 2006, Simpson heard Segars-Andrews note that her husband's law firm had shared in a large personal-injury settlement with the lawyer who was representing his ex-wife. She recognized the appearance of a conflict in court, telling the lawyers, "You all need to find another judge."

But after receiving an affidavit from Nathan M. Crystal, who also has taught judicial ethics at the University of South Carolina School of Law, she changed her mind.

Crystal wrote that she did not violate her duty to disclose the alleged conflict because she didn't know about it when the case began.

"Judge Segars-Andrews decided this case fairly without any knowledge of the alleged conflict of interest," Crystal wrote. "Both parties received a fair hearing before an impartial judge."

But Adams said the standard is that a judge should disqualify himself or herself if his or her impartiality might reasonably be questioned. "That's the test, and if a reasonable person knowing the circumstances could question a judge's impartiality, then the judge has a clear duty to step aside," he said.

However, that's not enforced by the appellate courts. The S.C. Court of Appeals upheld Segars-Andrews' decision to rule in the Simpson divorce case.

"Our courts in South Carolina have said that it's only reversible error when a judge fails to disqualify herself if the party complaining about it can prove both that she was biased or prejudiced and that somehow it affected the outcome," Adams said. "That's virtually an impossible standard."

Simpson later appealed Segars-Andrews' decision to rule in the case to the state's Judicial Conduct Commission, but he had no luck there.

Adams said while the Judicial Conduct Commission has worked to censure magistrates and municipal judges, it rarely, if ever, has disciplined judges who serve on family, circuit or appeals court levels.

"There certainly is ample room for concern in the statistics," he said.

Adams said the makeup of the commission is too weighted toward judges and lawyers, not members of the public. "I think there's a substantial problem in the makeup of the commission," he said. "It's just not an independent body."

Adams said the Segars-Andrews case shows the system is broken. "There's no reason in the world why Segars-Andrews' continued service on the bench should be in jeopardy now. This is a horrendous overreaction to what I consider to be a violation but a well-intended mistake that resulted in a violation of the rules."

Criticism of the state's judicial review system is nothing new.

Last year, HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), a national nonprofit, rated the state's system for holding judges accountable as a C-, not the worst in the nation, but below average.

It cited the makeup of the judicial conduct review board, which is weighted heavily with attorneys and judges and has only two public members. Suzanne M. Blonder, senior counsel with HALT, called South Carolina's review process "one of the most insular in the nation."

S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal declined to talk about the judicial conduct commission, but said, "Judge Segars-Andrews is a very fine judge. I've got every confidence she will receive a fair hearing on the matter she is going to present on the beginning of December."

Since news broke of the commission's finding that Segars-Andrews is unqualified, many attorneys have begun to rally around her.

The state chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers has passed a resolution in support, and the Charleston County Family Court Liaison Committee also has praised the judge for her many community outreach programs, including the auxiliary probation officer program, juvenile drug court and Department of Social Services Mediation project.

The Charleston County Family Court Association issued a statement saying it "fully supports and endorses the re-election of Judge Segars-Andrews ... so that the good work she has begun and maintained in and for the community and the fair treatment and excellent attention to each case as she provides in the courtroom may both continue."

It's unclear what weight those moves might carry with the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

Charleston lawyer D. Dusty Rhoades said it's not surprising his colleagues would rally around an embattled judge.

"It's a no-lose deal for any attorney because you can curry favor with a judge in question so that if they win, you can hope that's going to carry over to better treatment. And if they lose, there's no retribution," Rhoades said. "I call it 'Not a Moment in Courage.' "

And Simpson said he plans to be there Wednesday and doesn't think removing her would be too great a step.

"I feel like she got her hand caught in the cookie jar," he said. "I feel she needs to be removed from the bench right now. ... I feel like it's injustice for her to sit and hear another case since they've found her unqualified."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at rbehre@postandcourier.com.