Richland County judge wins rare legal battle with lawmakers who put him on the bench

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Published: Aug. 11, 2023 at 10:16 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A Richland County judge has emerged victorious from a rare legal battle with a group of lawmakers who put him on the bench.

Judge Joseph Strickland, who has served as the county’s master-in-equity for the past 34 years, sued the legislators in an attempt to hold onto his position.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina unanimously ruled in Strickland’s favor Thursday, ordering the lawmakers to forward his name to Governor Henry McMaster for approval.

“When our Supreme Court issues a unanimous ruling, it’s the strongest message they can send to the party that’s not doing the right thing,” Nekki Shutt, Strickland’s attorney, said in an interview Friday.

The message the court is sending with its win for her client is “don’t meddle in the judiciary,” she said.

The ongoing legal drama has also exposed a great deal of disagreement among the lawmakers who serve on this panel, known as the Richland County Legislative Delegation.

Rep. Leon Howard, Delegation Chairman, said he respects the court’s decision and has already sent a letter to McMaster offering Strickland’s name for consideration, as ordered.

“The delegation, me as Chair representing the delegation, we immediately complied with the Supreme Court order,” he said. “That is what the courts are for, for people who have differences of opinion to come to some resolve.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, several of the lawmakers are continuing to bicker and dig in on their positions.

Though many of the members of Richland County’s delegation are Democrats, some have lobbed accusations of illegal conduct and corruption in this process.

“We need to quit with the intrigue, the calculation by different members of the delegation to maximize their personal benefit, the benefit politically and otherwise for them, out of this process,” Sen. Dick Harpootlian said.

Questions surrounding the judgeship have been hotly debated for weeks, including most notably at an August 2 meeting of the delegation on the matter, during which lawmakers shouted and hurled insults at each other.

At issue in the case is whether a county delegation is required to do forward a candidate’s name to the governor when only one candidate is deemed qualified by the state’s screening panel, known as the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC).

The state Supreme Court says they are.

In its ruling, the justices wrote about the unique circumstances in this case.

“Typically, the selection of which JMSC-qualified candidate to nominate to the Governor for appointment would be an inherently political question in which the Court could not interfere,” the order reads. “Here, however, the facts are unique: Petitioner was the only JMSC-qualified candidate who applied for the position of Richland County Master. The lack of any other qualified candidates strips the RCLD of any possible discretion and merely requires the RCLD to complete a ministerial task, that being to formally submit the only qualified candidate’s name—Petitioner—to the Governor for his consideration.”

Rep. Heather Bauer, who along with Rep. Seth Rose and Harpootlian, filed a return with the court in support of Strickland’s position, said that the ruling was a “victory for the rule of law.”

During last week’s meeting, Bauer made a motion requesting that the delegation forward Strickland’s name to McMaster.

It was voted down 9-3.

After the meeting, Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, who filed the delegation’s response to Strickland’s lawsuit, had suggested that Bauer’s motion eliminated any possibility that Strickland would continue to be seated as master-in-equity.

“I may be a freshman, but I’m not a dummy,” Bauer said in an interview Friday. “I can read, I understand processes.”

Harpootlian argued that Rutherford and Howard broke the law, and even suggested that voters should potentially remove them from office.

“People on the delegation, like Todd Rutherford and Leon Howard, believe they’re above the law,” he said. “We’re supposed to be making laws, not breaking them.”

Howard shot back at Harpootlian, and said he is just “making a lot of noise.”

“I don’t think my constituents have any confidence in Dick Harpootlian, he’s always been loud, disrespectful, and a bully,” Howard said. “I don’t think anybody listens to Dick but Dick. It’s obvious that no one listens to Dick because he could only get two other votes to go along with him.”

Rutherford said in an interview that the high court’s order illustrates Harpootlian’s own ignorance.

Harpootlian, along with all the other delegation members, had every opportunity to submit Strickland’s name to McMaster over the last two years once he was deemed qualified in 2021, according to Rutherford.

“If he’s going to advocate that we’re going to change, the change needs to be that he needs to be gone because if you’re going to not do something because you’re too dumb to know to do it, you don’t get to accuse other people of being corrupt because you didn’t do your own job.”

Rutherford said he interprets the court’s ruling to mean that delegations must choose who they want to serve as master-in-equity before the screening process if those panels are to have any choice in the matter at all.

Masters-in-equity differ from other judicial appointments.

“In a normal judgeship, if I said I wanted Craig Melvin to be the next judge in Richland County, I have tainted Craig Melvin and I’ve broken the law,” Rutherford said. “That’s not the case as it relates to a master-in-equity. And in fact, as we said today, you now have to do that prior to screening otherwise your candidate may not make it out.”

In a letter to McMaster, Howard asked him to consider the fact that a majority of delegation members voted down Strickland’s name last week.

However, Harpootlian, Bauer, and Sen. Mia McLeod take issue with this, contending that any votes taken during that meeting were illegal and nonbinding.

They believe that the meeting was in violation of South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act law, which stipulates that 24-hour notice must be given before a public meeting unless there is an emergency.

Shutt argued that this is an attempt by the delegation to “keep up the fight.”

“I think at this point, they feel like some of their power is being taken away,” she said. “Legislators don’t like that.”

McLeod sent a separate letter to the governor on Friday, imploring him to ignore Howard’s request.

“Rep. Howard’s backroom dealings with fellow Delegation members have repeatedly failed to offer the public or you any justifiable rationale for not reappointing Judge Strickland,” she wrote. “They merely ask that you support their vindictive, political motivations to deny his reappointment, without cause.”

Howard dismissed these concerns, and said that the Harpootlian, Bauer, and McLeod are “usually in the minority on everything.”

It is unclear how the governor plans to proceed.

McMaster said Thursday that he needed to review the high court’s ruling before making any decision.

If he approves Strickland’s reappointment, the full General Assembly still has to vote on the judgeship.

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