WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans, in the state House and the U.S. Capitol, are experiencing political heartburn over a duo of judicial nominations and a soon-to-be-vacant chief justice seat on the S.C. Supreme Court.
And while there’s disagreement over how to proceed, both sides agree it’s a messy situation that perhaps could have been avoided.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama nominated state Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty and Spartanburg attorney Donald Coggins for U.S. District judgeships.
Beatty’s nomination had been in the works for two years, so while some supporters were thrilled by the announcement, others bemoaned it was ill-timed.
Current Chief Justice Costa Pleicones is retiring at the end of this year. Following the seniority tradition, Beatty, the only black justice, is next in line.
However, there’s been a push by some Republican legislators to have a “conservative” judge ascend to that position. Those lawmakers contend there’d be precedent to skipping over Beatty in favor of a more right-leaning alternative, and cited the 2014 contested race between then-Chief Justice Jean Toal and Pleicones as proof.
But state Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, said the state Legislature ultimately sent a strong signal of support for the seniority system when Toal was re-elected for her final year. Mitchell said Republicans are just now opposing Beatty because he’s black.
“You can’t take the (Confederate) flag down one year, and the next year you continue with a flag agenda because you don’t want to see a black face on the bench,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and others wanted Beatty nominated years ago to avert the current crisis, where Beatty now has to decide whether he wants to run for chief justice but won’t know for months when he’ll be confirmed for the federal judgeship, if at all. Judicial confirmation in the U.S. Senate has always taken some time, but the process has gotten even slower in recent years due to congressional partisanship and institutional dysfunction. The standoff over confirming a new U.S. Supreme Court justice in the final months of the Obama administration isn’t helping move things along.
What comes next for Beatty depends largely on the two U.S. senators who hail from his state, Republicans Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott. Graham doesn’t comment on pending judicial nominees before they are formally considered by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member. He would probably support Beatty and Coggins, however, since he was consulted during the Obama administration’s vetting of the candidates.
Scott’s position is more of a question mark. Sources told The Post and Courier that Scott is frustrated he hasn’t been involved in discussions involving judicial nominations, a holdover habit on the Obama administration’s part from the days when Scott’s predecessor, Jim DeMint, deferred on all these matters to Graham. But Scott does care about having buy-in, sources said, and excluding him from the consultation process could now have repercussions for Beatty as well as Coggins, who doesn’t have a reputation for being the conservative hardliner Republicans would normally prefer.
Scott’s spokesman, Sean Smith, wouldn’t tip his hand Friday.
“As the nominations were just sent to the White House yesterday, Sen. Scott and his citizen-led judicial nominating committee will continue the process of vetting each judge,” he said in a statement, referring to the task force Scott established in late-2014 of South Carolina experts to “aid him in selecting candidates for federal judgeships.”
What Mitchell and other state Democratic lawmakers want to see now is a path for Beatty to become the state Supreme Court Chief Justice while he awaits confirmation.
“From my perspective, I am still focused on trying to make sure that he is elected chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said they’ll face opposition to the proposed two-track approach. “I think folks back home are expecting him to pick one or the other. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”