Justice Kittredge calls for more transparency, accountability in state courts

Kittredge is the only candidate vying to succeed Chief Justice Donald Beatty
The man hoping to become South Carolina’s top judge said the state’s judicial system needs more accountability and transparency.
Published: Nov. 6, 2023 at 9:40 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 6, 2023 at 9:51 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The man hoping to become South Carolina’s top judge said the state’s judicial system needs more accountability and transparency.

But Justice John Kittredge stopped short of advocating for the judicial selection process to be overhauled, as some are urging.

South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature elects judges, which is next scheduled to happen in February.

But before then, candidates go through a screening process which will culminate over the next two weeks in Columbia, as candidates appear before a panel known as the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, or JMSC.

“We are at the end of what is a long process,” Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington and JMSC chair, said during the first day of screenings Monday.

The 10-member JMSC is made up of six legislators, who are typically also lawyers, and four citizen appointees. After their annual screenings of judicial candidates, they decide which candidates are qualified and forward up to three finalists for each seat to the General Assembly, which elects a winner.

This year, the JMSC will screen more than 80 candidates looking to fill more than two dozen open seats.

Before they appear before the JMSC, the process judicial candidates complete includes submitting an extensive application with information about their finances and economic interests, background on their legal experience, and sworn statements including questions on their judicial philosophy, demeanor, and case preparation.

A citizens committee, organized by the South Carolina Bar, also interviews multiple contacts for every judicial candidate, who know them professionally and personally, before issuing a report on each to the JMSC ahead of its fall screenings.

“The vetting process is much more arduous and deep than I think most people realize,” Kittredge said in his opening remarks during his 40-minute appearance before the commission Monday morning.

It is a process Kittredge has been through many times in his 32 years serving on South Carolina benches.

Now he is going through it as the only candidate vying to succeed Chief Justice Donald Beatty, who is stepping down next summer when he reaches the state-mandated retirement age for judges in South Carolina.

“I have served on every major court in South Carolina. I’m the only person to ever have done so,” Kittredge said. “So I do believe I have a good sense of what happens on the front lines because I’ve been there, and I’ve experienced it.”

Kittredge took questions about how he would handle challenges the state’s judicial branch faces, responded to concerns that he is too conservative, saying he has no political leanings, and outlined his judicial philosophy, which he described as “one of restraint.”

“Judges adjudicate. Judges do not legislate,” he said.

This year’s judicial screenings come as calls are growing for South Carolina to change the way it selects judges, with the governor, attorney general, solicitors, and some lawmakers among those urging reform.

Their proposals range from changes within the JMSC system, including removing all lawyer-legislators and requiring the commission forward the names of all qualified candidates to the General Assembly instead of a maximum of three, to upending the state’s current structure in favor of one modeled on the federal system, in which the governor would appoint judges with Senate approval.

Others want to see more diversity on state benches, including on the all-male Supreme Court, that reflects the South Carolinians who come before them.

“Whether this commission should exist at all is a question for another day and another forum,” Caskey said at the start of Monday’s meeting.

A newly formed House of Representatives committee has been tasked with taking a closer look at judicial reform options and issuing recommendations to the legislature for next session, which begins in January.

It will meet for the first time Tuesday, at the same time the JMSC will begin its second day of work.

Kittredge is scheduled among those set to testify before the new committee Tuesday, along with Beatty and others.

He held back on offering any recommendations for potential changes to the judicial selection process during his appearance Monday, saying he would leave the question of if there is room for improvement “to the decision makers.”

But Kittredge noted South Carolina judges who are selected by the legislature, which do not include magistrate and municipal judges, have a solid track record compared to those in some other states.

“There are very few complaints against judges in South Carolina. And why is that? I harken back to my original comments to you: It’s the vetting that goes on here,” Kittredge told the JMSC.

But Kittredge also said South Carolina’s judicial branch needs more transparency and accountability across the board.

“We can have a wonderful system,” he said. “But if the public doesn’t believe it’s fair, it’s not. Perception is a reality.”

As opposed to most meetings and hearings at the State House, these judicial screening panels are not livestreamed on the internet.

Caskey explained that is because these are essentially job interviews, and the commission does not want to give some candidates an advantage by being able to watch the questioning of the candidates before them, vying for the same job.

But for the first time, these hearings will be recorded and released once all screenings have been completed.