COLUMBIA — A Berkeley County judge's decision to withdraw from re-election amid a hearing on her courtroom demeanor has prompted both outrage and applause for how South Carolina fills its judicial bench.
Supporters of Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington contend she's the victim of an unfair and biased process that allows anonymous complaints to sway votes, while others say the system worked as it should in pushing out a judge who some consider unprofessional.
Harrington officially removed herself from contention Tuesday rather than answer whether she'd talked to a legislator about her election since she last appeared before the Judicial Merit Screening Commission in November. That would violate state law that bans any contact, whether directly or indirectly, until the panel's work is complete — a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.
The question came after hours of grilling on 72 anonymous accusations from attorneys who called her disrespectful and verbally abusive. They represented 13 percent of all surveys turned in on Harrington — double the negative responses of any other judge seeking re-election, according to the panel.
"Extremely condescending, insecure, overbearing and rude, very rude and condescending to counsel; she has a short fuse; candidate is temperamental and may be suffering from robe-itis," Rep. Todd Rutherford, a panel member, read from the surveys.
Harrington disputed the accusations, saying she couldn't explain unspecified complaints, even while asking for a "chance to make it right."
Harrington faced no opposition for the circuit court seat she's held since 2008. But if the panel had deemed her unqualified, that would have ended her judgeship, as the Legislature could not have voted for her in February's elections.
Her supporters, who filled Tuesday's hearing but could not testify, contend judges shouldn't face removal for such secret griping. The anonymous surveys, collected on every candidate as part of the process, can only be seen by the legislative panel. Not even Harrington could see them. Under state law, her withdrawal letter triggered the destruction of all documents collected and transcripts made of her consideration.
No one ever filed a formal, signed complaint against Harrington with the panel. She's never been sanctioned by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, though it's unknown if a complaint has been made there, as all investigations are secret.
Harrington's supporters span the legal spectrum, from former GOP state Attorney General Charlie Condon to prominent Charleston defense attorney Andy Savage. Even former Gov. Nikki Haley, now United Nations ambassador, tweeted a note of support.
Savage said he's never witnessed the alleged behavior in the countless times he's been in Harrington's courtroom and considers Harrington one of the state's finest judges. As for the examples of condescending behavior given at the hearing — telling a witness to spit out his gum, telling an attorney to remove a bracelet banging on her computer as she typed and repeatedly telling an attorney that court needed to start — Savage called those non-issues.
It's just good courtroom decorum to be on time, be prepared and not do things distracting to a jury or others, said Savage, who represented former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager in his sentencing hearing last week.
"I'm all in favor of a strict judiciary," Savage said. "Perhaps more importantly is the lack of due process that people can attack her without coming forward and saying their name."
Jay Bender, whose media clients include The Post and Courier, explained why people don't do so.
Bender wrote an editorial column last week where he described his first encounter with Harrington earlier this year. Harrington repeatedly admonished him publicly as he was merely trying to introduce himself before court started, Bender said. He planned to testify against her at the hearing and even completed an affidavit detailing what happened, but then decided against it.
"The odds were that she was going to be reelected and might seek revenge against my clients and partners," he wrote. "It would be nice to pretend that this doesn’t happen, but it has happened in South Carolina with judges who thankfully are no longer sitting."
While it's unusual for a sitting judge to be removed, how infrequent is unclear, particularly since the process keeps all information on those who drop out confidential. Rutherford named two longtime male judges Tuesday he said were removed for temperament issues. But officially, they retired.
"If there's one thing that will really get you in trouble as a judge, it's temperament," said John Freeman, the University of South Carolina law school's professor emeritus on professional ethics. "Everybody makes mistakes, but if you're perceived as being demeaning to people and not giving people a fair shot and not listening impartially and respectfully to them, you've got a problem with the commission. There's no better way if you want to end your judicial career."
He pointed to the oath judges take in South Carolina, in which they promise to "treat all persons who enter the courtroom with civility, fairness and respect."
Freeman, a member of the Judicial Merit Screening Commission for 12 years, likened the anonymous surveys to a piece of evidence. The commission expects judges to get negative comments. While there's no set number for how many are too many, a clustering of similar allegations should raise a flag, he said.
"Then it’s time to pay attention and drill down into this and see what’s going on, and that’s what appears to have happened in this case," he said.
He did, however, call it "almost scandalous" that Harrington was being judged by an all-male panel, and he encouraged legislators to change the commission's makeup.
As for assertions of gender bias, Freeman said there might be some of that.
"There may be male lawyers who for whatever reason can't stand to be corrected or overruled in front of a female judge, but I think it's a vast minority," he said.
Rather than being unfair, this may be an instance of the system actually holding people accountable, Freeman said.
"Maybe, just maybe, it's a sign there is a system for the public protection and it's working," he said.
Harrington declined to comment on the process or say whether she would have stayed in the race if not for the question about contacting a lawmaker. Who she might have contacted is unknown. Her attorney, Dawes Cooke, called it "incidental and not intentional contact" with someone she knows.
"She decided based on the whole circumstance it was in everyone's best interest that she'd announce her retirement," said Cooke, president-elect of the South Carolina Bar. "She wants to focus on being the best judge she can for the rest of her term. Personally, I feel it's a loss for the state. There's no harder-working judge anywhere."