AP NEWS

Bill would change how SC judges are elected

March 6, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Mia McLeod, a South Carolina state senator with a connection to the Pee Dee, has filed four bills during the legislative session to change how judges are elected in the Palmetto State.

The bills are Senate Bills 270, 560, 561, and 562.

McLeod introduced S.B. 270 earlier this session. The bill would prohibit immediate family members of sitting legislators from running for judicial seats.

S.B. 560, introduced last week, would require all candidates seeking seats on the state’s Court of Appeals or Supreme Court to have previously served in a lower court of record as a prerequisite to their service on the two highest courts.

Earlier this month, a black female judge from Columbia, Alison Renee Lee, was passed over for a seat on the Court of Appeals. The justice eventually selected, Blake Hewitt, was not a judge before being appointed to the court. A number of black lawmakers briefly walked out of the joint session in protest of Hewitt’s election.

Only one member of the two South Carolina appellate courts, the South Carolina Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of South Carolina, is black, Chief Justice of South Carolina Supreme Court Donald W. Beatty.

S.B. 561, also introduced last week, would require that the Judicial Merit Selection Commission appointees must, to the best extent possible, reflect the demography and diversity of South Carolina. The bill would also amend the statute to require that the JMSC report out all qualified and nominated judicial candidates to the General Assembly, rather than only the three currently required under the law.

S.B. 562 would require practicing attorneys serving as state legislators to recuse themselves in judicial elections.

All four bills are in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two Pee Dee area senators, Democrats Gerald Malloy and Ronnie Sabb, are on the Judiciary Committee.

Malloy said McLeod was a great senator with great insight. He added that she was one of his best friends in the Senate.

He said he was hopeful that the bills would lead to a discussion on the improvement of the judicial merit selection commission.

Malloy said that S.B. 560 had its challenges to passage including that many judges cherish their time as lawyers. He also used the example of Bill Gates as someone who didn’t graduate from college but still found success. The bill, he added, may eliminate some of people who can perform the job the best.

On S.B. 561, he said that representing the diversity and demography of South Carolina was always a goal of the commission and that the process was not perfect but better than the alternatives of public elections or gubernatorial appointments with the consent of the Senate. Either process, he said, was more partisan than the current system. Malloy said the current system helps the judiciary remain independent. He added that there were too few women and minorities representing the state.

Malloy said that attorney-legislators needed to be cognizant of potential areas of impropriety but that it was not the place of the General Assembly to limit the service of anyone.

Malloy represents Senate District 29 which includes a small portion of eastern Chesterfield County, most of Darlington County except small portions in the southeastern part of the county, most of Marlboro County except a portion of the northeastern part of the county, and eastern Lee County.

McLeod, a Democrat, currently represents Senate District 22 which includes northeast Richland County and a small portion of southwestern Kershaw County. She served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 2011 to 2016. According to the General Assembly’s website, McLeod is a communications consultant.

In South Carolina, judges, except for probate judge, are elected by the General Assembly. Before a vote can be held, potential jurists are screened by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a ten-member group. Currently that group has three senators, three representatives, two people appointed by the Senate and two appointed by the House.

Sabb is a member of the commission.