Dorchester County lawmakers appear deadlocked about how to proceed with the county's master in equity position, a judicial post that handles property claims.
Master in Equity Patrick Watts' term expires June 30, and he and Dorchester County Magistrate Frederick Newton want to be appointed to a new six-year term beginning July 1. Both were found qualified by the state's Judicial Merit Screening Commission in November.
But state Sen. Mike Rose, R-Summerville, said he no longer is comfortable reappointing Watts after the S.C. Supreme Court overturned a foreclosure order Watts had signed following a hearing he didn't attend.
Unlike circuit and family court judges, who are elected by state lawmakers, masters in equity are appointed by the governor. He does so after getting a recommendation from state lawmakers in the county where the master in equity serves.
The Dorchester County legislative delegation hasn't met to discuss the position, and the delegation's chairwoman, state Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, declined to say when it might talk about it.
"I really can't comment on where we are in that process," she said. "There's a lot you don't know about the whole story."
Rose said the delegation has been told that if it were to send Watts name to Gov. Mark Sanford, he would reject it. Sanford spokesman Ben Fox declined to confirm or deny that.
"We wait until receiving a recommendation from the local delegation," Fox said. "Beyond that, we traditionally don't comment on potential appointments at this stage in the process."
Watts and Newton also declined comment.
Rose said he has asked the delegation to meet and vote and is puzzled by the impasse, particularly when there's another qualified candidate.
"We're stuck," he said. "I just feel like if we're not going to vote for one, we should vote for the other."
The case overturned by the Supreme Court involved a foreclosure against a Summerville home owned by Ed and Sherry Davidson.
Unlike many homeowners going through foreclosure, Sherry Davidson decided to attend her hearing, partly to explain her predicament. She said she and her husband knew they needed to sell their home because their income had dropped, but she said construction problems made it impossible.
Davidson sent Dorchester County lawmakers a letter complaining about how she was treated.
The Supreme Court's unanimous decision sent the matter back for a new hearing before Watts, declining the Davidsons' request to have a different judge hear it. It called the earlier order "unfortunate," but it said Watts tried to conduct a proper hearing after the fact -- though by that time the case had moved on to an appeals court.
The lawyer for the mortgage holder called the hearing an "empty ritual," but the Supreme Court ruling said, "We do not view the presence of the judge in the courtroom as an 'empty ritual.' "
"While it may be difficult to understand how an order was issued from a hearing that never happened, we put the matter into context by recognizing the enormous case loads handled by our state's excellent masters, especially with respect to mortgage foreclosures," the ruling said.
If nothing changes, Watts will remain on the job after his term expires June 30. If no one is appointed by this fall, the Judicial Merit Screening Commission will restart the screening process. Watts, Newton and others could apply at that time. The delegation could wait until Sanford leaves office in January before it makes a choice.
Meanwhile, the glitch has allowed the Davidsons to stay in their home. "It's an absolute miracle," Sherry Davidson said.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.