COLUMBIA — One of South Carolina’s Supreme Court associate justices is again seeking to become the court’s next chief justice.
If he remains the only candidate, Costa Pleicones would likely succeed Chief Justice Jean Toal when she steps down later this year. Pleicones, 70, would only remain in the position for about a year if elected by a majority of the General Assembly before hitting the mandatory retirement age of 72. The election is expected to take place in May.
There aren’t any other challengers so far for Pleicones, who has served on the Supreme Court since 2000. He previously served as an enlisted serviceman and lawyer for the U.S. Army, as a public defender in Richland County and as a Circuit Court judge.
The full General Assembly elects Supreme Court justices, the same as all other judges in the state.
“My understanding of this system puts me in a better position than anyone to lead the court at this time,” Pleicones said. He said one goal would be to reform the state’s bar exam for budding lawyers, which takes three days. Most states have gone to a two-day exam, he said.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, who is often very involved in judicial elections, said lawmakers are waiting to see whether others will also jump into the race. Associate Justice Donald Beatty also would be a good candidate but is widely expected to take a federal court seat opening, Rutherford said.
Rutherford predicted that if Beatty or another justice or judge jumped into the race it could mean a number of candidates would challenge Pleicones. Essentially, Rutherford said that if other candidates sense a fractured vote they could seize the opportunity.
All have deep friendships and ties in the Legislature. “You would see the support go in a lot of different directions,” Rutherford said.
Beatty and Toal did not return requests for comment.
Toal beat out Pleicones for chief justice last year during a contentious race. Many felt that Toal had backed out on a promise to step down, which Toal denied. Lawmakers were put in the difficult spot of having to pick sides.
“Chief Justice Toal and I get along well and have gotten along well for 50 years. It was never a vitriolic or nasty thing,” Pleicones said.
Toal, who was widely seen as someone who has generally sided with the Legislature, wraps up her tenure on the heels of two important decisions that bucked that trend. Last year, Toal and the rest of the court sided with Attorney General Alan Wilson in a widely watched battle between the attorney general and former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.
Good government advocates and others feared that if Wilson was not allowed to pursue a criminal ethics investigation into Harrell, legislators would have effective immunity from prosecution for such crimes. The court, including Toal, decided Wilson did have that authority. In the end, Wilson handed over the case to another prosecutor and Harrell pleaded guilty to ethics-related charges.
In November, Toal also decided for rural-area schools in the landmark case of Abbeville County School District vs. State of South Carolina, which education advocates say has deep civil rights implications. The 21-year-old lawsuit had languished for years, and advocates say they hope the decision will mean a better education for those in impoverished, rural schools. The Legislature and Gov. Nikki Haley have criticized the decision.
Toal has also been credited with updating and modernizing the court system’s docket and case-management system, moving paperwork online into a more transparent format.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.