SC solicitors want lawyer-lawmakers removed from judicial screening panel

Published: Oct. 23, 2023 at 7:16 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A group of prosecutors are demanding for a drastic change concerning who has influence over which judges serve on South Carolina’s benches.

They believe booting lawmakers who work as lawyers by profession from the state’s judicial screening panel will be a step toward repairing public faith in South Carolina’s judicial system.

South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature elects judges, but first, judicial candidates have to appear before the screening panel, known as the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, or JMSC.

The 10-member committee determines if candidates are qualified and forwards up to three names for each seat to the entire General Assembly, which elects a winner.

Six JMSC members are legislators, and they are also typically lawyers, while the other four members are appointed citizens, who are usually lawyers themselves or work in the legal profession.

Nine solicitors are now calling for those six lawyer-legislators to immediately be removed from the JMSC and be replaced with lawmakers who have other jobs.

In a letter sent Monday to Speaker of the House Murrell Smith, R – Sumter, and Senate Judiciary Chair Luke Rankin, R – Horry, the solicitors wrote that barring lawyer-legislators from serving on the committee “would go a long way toward improving the judicial selection process and restoring public confidence in our judiciary.”

Smith and Rankin hold the power to appoint lawmakers to the panel.

This is one of the strongest demands yet among the growing chorus of calls for judicial reform in South Carolina, and a newly formed ad hoc committee in the House of Representatives will study and make recommendations on this issue.

In response to the letter, Rep. Micah Caskey, R – Lexington and a lawyer who chairs the JMSC, said he believes Smith and Rankin will give the letter “its due consideration.”

“I hope these prosecutors will participate fully in our judicial selection process and in the House’s ad hoc committee. Their live testimony would be helpful,” Caskey said in a text message.

The solicitors pointedly called out one JMSC member by name, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D - Richland.

They wrote Rutherford “has been central to a number of recent scandals that have eroded public confidence in our State’s judiciary and have created an appearance of undue influence derived from the considerable power granted by his role in the JMSC.”

The solicitors mentioned Rutherford’s representation of convicted murderer Jeroid Price, who was secretly granted an early release from prison this year, which Rutherford helped coordinate with since-retired Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning and Richland County Solicitor Byron Gipson. Gipson was not among the nine solicitors who signed on to the letter.

Rutherford denies any impropriety in that case or others.

“If they would like for the Speaker of the House to take me off Judicial Merit Selection, they should at least show where I have done something wrong. They cannot,” Rutherford told reporters Monday. “If what they’re tired of is me beating them, me doing a better job in court, then they should get used to the fact that I’m simply a better lawyer they are and that’s why they’re complaining.”

In two weeks, the JMSC will meet at the State House to start screening judicial candidates in what is expected to be a closely scrutinized process.

Meanwhile, any legislative changes to the judicial selection process cannot be taken up until January, at the earliest, when the new legislative session begins.

A spokesperson for Speaker Smith said he did not have a response to the solicitors’ letter at this time, while Chairman Rankin did not return a request for comment.

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