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Judge Thomas Russo speaks at a hearing April 22, 2019, at the Florence County Judicial Center. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — A South Carolina judge withdrew from reelection after being questioned about accusations that he berated people in court and discriminated against female attorneys, Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin confirmed Friday.  

Judge Thomas Russo of Florence will give up his seat after 16 years in June. Rankin, a Myrtle Beach Republican who is vice chairman of the legislative panel that screens judges, declined to elaborate any further. State law keeps all information confidential on judicial candidates who drop out.

Russo did not return email or phone messages Friday.

It marks the second time in three years that a circuit judge removed themselves from contention amid questioning from the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which voted out a Family Court judge last year.  

Russo was running unopposed for a six-year term for the at-large seat he's held since 2005. But he was grilled Monday about bad reviews from an anonymous survey of attorneys statewide, which is part of the screening process. About 20 percent of 68 responses submitted on Russo laid out concerns.  

Russo's "outbursts are nothing short of legendary," one lawyer wrote in a response read aloud during the hearing.

Another accused him of "discriminatory" behavior toward female attorneys, including calling them "liars."

He publicly disputed both charges. 

"I don’t know that I’ve ever berated anyone. If I have an issue with an attorney, I do ask they step back in chambers, so I don’t do that in public," he told the panel during Monday's hearing. 

He called it "shocking" to even be accused of sexism, saying, "I've had nothing but the utmost respect for women." 

The panel then met with Russo behind closed doors, including over 90 minutes on Wednesday. 

Since Russo was running unopposed, the application process must be reopened. That could mean the seat will be vacant for a few months after his term ends. 

Russo was among nearly 50 judicial incumbents and candidates being screened for legislative elections in February to 19 seats. The panel generally screens candidates once a year.

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South Carolina is one of two states where the Legislature elects most of the state's judges. The General Assembly votes on up to three candidates per seat who the panel deems qualified. 

The process rarely dislodges a sitting circuit judge.

In 2017, then-Judge Kristi Harrington of Berkeley County withdrew and retired amid a hearing on her courtroom demeanor.

The only other example in the past decade was in 2009, when Judge Kenneth Goode withdrew after it came to light he had twice failed judicial competency exams and was accused of being too lenient in two cases of convicted sex offenders.

Otherwise, hearings in recent years have rarely been contentious, The Post and Courier reported in its March joint investigation with ProPublica, "The Untouchables." The newspaper reviewed more than 1,000 pages of hearing transcripts over the past decade.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.