Lawyer: S.C. still failing rural schools (Dec. 6, 2018 copy)

The South Carolina Supreme Court. File

COLUMBIA — For the second time in as many years, a South Carolina judge up for re-election was ousted from their position during their screening with the state's judicial oversight panel.

During its round of November hearings, the Judicial Merit Selection Commission rejected a second term for Spartanburg Judge Kelly Pope-Black. She was vying for re-election to another six-year stint as an at-large Family Court judge. Her term ends June 30.

Members of the 10-person panel, which reviewed nearly 80 statewide judicial candidates over two weeks of public hearings in Columbia, declined Thursday to discuss the specifics of Pope-Black's case.

The screening panel doesn't shy from coming down on a sitting judge whose conduct comes into question, said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a panel member.

“If it is clear that a person wears a heavy robe, or they can’t seem to understand that they represent something much larger than they are, it’s going to be a problem for them,” said Rutherford, a Columbia attorney.

Pope-Black didn’t return a message left with her office Thursday.

South Carolina is one of two states where the Legislature elects most of the state’s judges — the same people who interpret the laws they pass.

The General Assembly votes on up to three candidates nominated by the screening panel.

But those candidates are only forwarded to the Legislature if they are deemed by the panel to be qualified — based on various criteria, including a judge’s experience, temperament and character.

Out of 44 judges up for re-election this year, Pope-Black was one of just two who faced an opposing candidate. The other, Tripp Anderson, chief judge of the administrative law court, was found qualified and nominated. His opponent, Columbia lawyer Thomas Rosamond Smith, was also nominated, setting up a legislative vote on the position.

David Collins of Greenville challenged Pope-Black.

The screening panel could have nominated Collins and Pope-Black to the Legislature for a vote, but because the incumbent was rejected, neither candidate was forwarded. Instead, a new election for Pope-Black’s seat will take place next year.

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Among the 79 candidates considered, including judges and non-judges, along with Pope-Black the panel found just one other candidate unqualified for the bench.

That candidate, Anderson lawyer Rame Campbell, was rejected after panel members during his hearing said they received complaints that he had made “sexist and demeaning” comments to women in the workplace.

The screening panel of legislators and attorneys, created by a 1996 state law, during its annual hearings has almost always forwarded sitting judges to the legislature for a vote, having found them qualified for their position.

However, last year during a hearing, the panel grilled former Berkeley County judge Kristi Harrington about several complaints about her demeanor. By the end of the hearing Harrington withdrew her nomination.

Harrington’s vacancy for her seat on the 9th Judicial Circuit drew nine candidates — the most of any race this year. The screening panel forwarded three candidates for a vote — Folly Beach municipal Judge Bentley Price; Berkeley County master-in-equity Dale Van Slambrook; and attorney Meredith Coker, a former College of Charleston professor.

The legislative elections are scheduled for February.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.