COLUMBIA — This week's opening round of judicial screenings was dominated by a packed field of candidates vying to replace a circuit court judge ousted last year after he faced questions about his ethics and his temperament.
Fourteen lawyers from across South Carolina, including several other sitting judges, threw their names in the hat to fill the at-large seat vacated by Judge Thomas Russo. He held the seat in Florence for 15 years until he withdrew his candidacy last year in the wake of allegations that he berated women who appeared before him and posted political rants on Facebook.
The screening panel grilled Russo over those concerns during an uncommonly tense hearing last November.
Sitting circuit court judges, considered for reappointment every six years, rarely face challengers or embarrassing questions when they are re-screened by the commission.
Those were part of the findings of a Post and Courier special report last year, "The Untouchables." The newspaper reviewed more than 1,000 pages of transcripts from screening records over the past two decades.
South Carolina's judicial screenings are rarely contentious, and almost never dislodge a sitting judge, the newspaper found.
Reviews by the screening panel of prior ethical grievances are conducted behind closed doors. Nominated candidates are then typically rubber stamped by the legislature.
Among the 30 individuals screened for slots on the circuit bench this week, incumbents faced challengers in just four races. And almost none were pressed on their record.
The lone contentious moments came when Circuit Court Judge Edward “Ned” Miller faced several complaints about his temperament and allegations that he bullied litigants.
But the 10-member panel, which includes six legislators, largely turned aside those concerns. While Miller — an 18-year judge from Greenville — acknowledged some lapses in his temperament, panel members took turns expressing their confidence in him.
State Rep. Chris Murphy, a North Charleston Republican, commended the judge’s handling of one case in question, adding, “I do not see anything in this particular action that you could have done any differently.”
South Carolina's powerful circuit court judges preside over all of the state's major criminal and civil cases. The jurists are paid a $192,400 public salary.
The candidacies will ultimately be decided by a full General Assembly vote during the next legislative session. South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature directly selects judges, after the selection commission screens candidates, incumbents and forwards recommendations to the legislature.
Russo’s position was called into question during his screening last fall, when lawyers said in anonymous surveys that he berated attorneys and showed discriminatory” behavior toward women who appeared before him, including calling them “liars.”
Russo was also questioned by the screening panel, during a closed-door session, about political Facebook posts that denounced liberals and “illegal immigrants,” The State newspaper reported at the time.
Russo withdrew his candidacy for reappointment, leaving his seat open when his term ended this June. To replace him, after screening 14 candidates, the commission recommended Florence criminal defense attorney Steven H. DeBerry, Conway lawyer Alex Hyman and Berkeley County Master-in-Equity Dale E. Van Slambrook.
For another seat on the nine-person Court of Appeals, the panel recommended all three candidates they screened — all sitting judges seeking a promotion to the higher court. That included Circuit Court Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, who has sat on the bench since 2011.
She was flanked during her Monday screening by her husband, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. During the judge’s brisk hearing, two panel members who have also practiced in her courtroom praised her.
“You and I have disagreed many times, but I don’t find any of your rulings done without thinking,” said Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and criminal defense lawyer.
The tone later shifted for Miller’s screening Wednesday.
Two former litigants who appeared before Miller testified that the judge illegally jailed them after he held them in contempt of court over civil disputes.
Miller countered that he was largely “courteous” to those who appear before him, and that he was within his rights to find disruptive litigants in contempt.
A screening panel attorney also read from anonymous feedback from lawyers, who in nearly a quarter of their comments accused Miller of having a “poor” temperament, and described him as “rude, callous, or uncaring,” among other concerns.
Miller responded that his mood soured in 2018 after the death of his wife: “Looking back on it, I realize I was a little cantankerous during that time.”
The panel later unanimously voted to to recommend Miller's reappointment. He faced no challengers.