Mike Pitts is a smart guy, a likeable guy, who spent a career as a police officer before serving 16 years in the S.C. House. Last year, he decided he wanted to run the S.C. Conservation Bank, whose budget he had championed for years as a Ways and Means subcommittee chairman, and so the agency offered him a job.
But that job required Senate approval, and after senators questioned the propriety of that career change, causing him to withdraw in March, he apparently found a new passion. Last month, during a special one-day session called to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s budget vetoes, the Senate approved Mr. Pitts’ appointment to serve as a Laurens County magistrate.
Now, Mr. Pitts might make a perfectly fine magistrate — he understands more about S.C. law than most magistrates, and he has experience getting along with people. But that says more about what’s lacking in other magistrates than what’s compelling in him. His consolation-prize appointment underscores an ugly truth about our judicial system: More than any other type of judge, magistrates — the judges who hear most traffic cases, decide who stays in jail and who gets out on bail and mediate most civil disputes — are purely political appointees. It’s not about what you know; it’s all about who you know.
Technically, the governor appoints magistrates, and the Senate confirms or rejects them. In reality, they’re selected by the senator who represents the community they serve. Governors yield to individual senators’ choices because they have no real choice.
Recall that at the federal level, the president often appoints a state’s U.S. District Court judges at the request of the senators from that state, in a tradition that is reminiscent of the way our governors handle magistrate appointments. But U.S. senators won’t hesitate to oppose judges from other states, while S.C. senators wouldn’t dream of opposing a magistrate from another county. So governors know that if they don’t appoint the magistrate the local senator supports, that senator can block the confirmation of their appointments.
Mr. Pitts was one of 34 magistrate nominations received by the Senate early in the day and then confirmed later that same day. Sen. Dick Harpootlian, the Columbia Democrat who led the opposition to Mr. Pitts’ Conservation Bank appointment, said he didn’t even realize Mr. Pitts had been nominated as magistrate until after the Senate had confirmed him. Likely, few other senators did either.
Another technicality about magistrates is the end date of their terms. Technically, Mr. Pitts’ term as a magistrate ends on April 30, 2023. In reality, he will serve as long past that date as is mutually agreeable to Mr. Pitts and Laurens County’s senator, Danny Verdin, or whoever becomes senator after he ceases to be one.
Some senators promptly reappoint or replace magistrates at the end of their terms. Others don’t, and this allows them to hold the magistrates in limbo, essentially threatening to replace them if they make decisions the senators don’t like. It’s hard to overstate the potential for abuse in this system. An easy fix is requiring magistrates to vacate their seats if they haven’t been reappointed by the end of their terms.
The Legislature has made big improvements to the magistrate system over the years. As recently as 2000, some magistrates didn’t even have to have a high school diploma; now, anyone first appointed since 2005 must have a four-year college degree; they all must pass a test to demonstrate they understand the laws they will enforce and complete regular continuing education courses. But we will not have a truly professional and independent system as long as the Senate allows individual senators to decide who will be magistrates, and as long as the law allows senators to hold magistrates in legal limbo.