Questioning gets heated during hearing for next S.C. Supreme Court chief justice

S.C. Supreme Court Associated Justice Donald Beatty got into a heated exchange with the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during a public hearing to replace retiring Chief Justice Costa Pleicones.

COLUMBIA — The lone candidate to be the next chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee got into a testy exchange during a public hearing Monday.

It ended when Associate Justice Donald W. Beatty apologized to Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, and asked that his comments be stricken from the record.

The two locked horns after discussing comments the judge made at a 2013 solicitors’ conference about unethical practices of prosecutors.

Martin questioned Beatty’s conference comments on law pending at the time that would have reversed a 2012 court ruling addressing control of the state court system docket. The matter has commonly been referred to as the Langford case.

Beatty said he was expecting to be questioned regarding his remarks at the solicitors’ conference but that he didn’t expect to be singled out about it.

“You know what else is interesting?” Beatty said. “Everything I said about Langford, Chief Justice (Jean) Toal said to the public defenders. Never heard a word about it. Sen. Martin, no one. And it’s my understanding Chief Justice Toal informed you she gave the same talk about Langford to the public defenders. And you had no problem with what she had to say.”

Martin fired back, “How do you know what I had a problem with?”

Beatty said he would rephrase his comments.

“I think you might need to do that,” Martin said.

After making an attempt to reword his remarks, Beatty changed his approach.

“Let me withdraw every comment I just made,” Beatty said.

“That might be advisable,” Martin responded.

The exchange came during a public hearing on evaluating a successor to replace Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, who will step down at the end of the year because he reached the state-mandated retirement age of 72. Beatty is the only justice running for the seat and, if elected, would be the second black man to serve in that top position.

Several members of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission said they were concerned about Beatty’s comments regarding what he called “prosecutorial abuse.”

Beatty apologized for his tone during the questioning, saying he is “no shrinking violet” when he feels that he’s being attacked.

“I would have to apologize for my combative nature when it comes to the solicitor thing,” he said at the end of the hearing. “It’s been a matter that’s really bothered me since it occurred. So if I’ve offended any of you with my tone or any comment that I might have made, please forgive me.”

Beatty’s comments at the 2013 conference drew the ire of the Charleston area’s 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson when Beatty singled out problems with prosecutors in the circuit.

The exact wording Beatty used at the conference was up for debate Monday, with solicitors who were upset with Beatty’s remarks offering one version and the justice giving a differing account.

A summary written by solicitors said Beatty told the audience of prosecutors they had “been getting away with too much for too long” and the high court will no longer turn a blind eye to unethical conduct such as witness tampering, selective and retaliatory prosecutions, perjury and suppression of evidence.

Beatty pointed to at least two cases involving Charleston-area attorneys.“By calling out the 9th Circuit, a hell-storm erupted,” Beatty said.

The 2013 comments led to 13 of the state’s 16 solicitors — led by Wilson — seeking to bar Beatty from considering their cases or ruling on grievances against prosecutors.

Attorney General Alan Wilson told attorneys at the time that while he agreed Beatty’s comments were problematic, there was no legal way to remove Beatty from all of their cases. Recusals could be sought on a case-by-case basis, the attorney general said.

Commission member Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, asked Beatty if there was any evidence that he was biased against solicitors.

“A study found the court agreed with solicitors 83 percent of the time,” Beatty said. “I personally agreed 84 percent of the time.”

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the chief justice appointment May 25.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.