COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina lawmakers elected Supreme Court associate justice Costa Pleicones the state’s first new chief justice in 15 years on Wednesday, but he won’t have the job for long.
Pleicones will replace Jean Toal, who turns 72 in August and is required to retire at the end of the year because of her age. But Pleicones turns 72 next year and can only spend a year’s as the state’s top judge.
“It’s the culmination of a long legal career,” a smiling Pleicones said outside the House chamber after his election.
He ran unopposed after unsuccessfully challenging Toal’s re-election in 2014. The two justices, who have been friends since childhood, sat side-by-side in the House gallery during the election.
Pleicones said he won’t change much. He would like to make the bar exam two days instead of three and continue Toal’s push to have legal papers filed electronically.
The two retirements will open coveted seats on the five-member state Supreme Court. The under-the-radar lobbying of lawmakers by judges and their supporters has already begun, said Sen. Larry Martin, a member of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.
“All you have to do is look out there in the lobby and see who is quietly hanging out,” said Martin, R-Pickens.
By custom, lawmakers have elevated the longest serving member of the court to be chief justice, but it isn’t a requirement. Associate Justice Don Beatty, 63, would be next in line for top judge, but he angered prosecutors in 2013 when he told them at a legal conference that the Supreme Court would no longer turn a blind eye toward conduct like witness tampering, retaliatory prosecutions and suppression of evidence.
Pleicones said he isn’t choosing sides in who replaces him, acknowledging the next chief justice will likely have a long tenure. Justices are elected to 10-year terms.
Pleicones will have a formal swearing in ceremony after he officially takes office on Jan. 1. He said he is still trying to get used to the trappings of his new position, like a formal oil painting.
“An 8-by-10 blow-up of a selfie would have been OK by me,” he said.