As part of a 2019 joint investigation conducted by The Post and Courier and ProPublica, which looked into the background and credentials of South Carolina judges, the investigation found, “though they [South Carolina judges] handle hundreds of thousands of misdemeanors and civil cases every year, roughly three-quarters of the state’s magistrates have never practiced law in their life.”
Following this revelation, lawmakers within the state of South Carolina are now poised to conduct their own detailed review of magistrate credentials, “many of whom,” legislators determined, “are among the state’s busiest but least qualified jurists.”
ProPublica warns that this is the result of a “flawed system of selection and oversight [that has facilitated] incompetence and corruption on the bench.” Judges throughout the state were found to have breached fiduciary duties, mishandled funds, took bribes, trampled on constitutional protections, and recklessly misinterpreted the law, often in the administration of some of the most basic and rudimentary proceedings.
More than a half-dozen bills to restructure judgeship criteria have been introduced within the legislature, and most have received overwhelming endorsement from the 23-person South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee. However, the current system is defended by many who claim that these “lesser” magistrates perform a crucial function – “clearing dockets of minor cases,” leaving circuit judges additional time to adjudicate major felony cases or complex civil litigation cases.
The relevant questions that need asking: Should these “lesser-educated” judges be given the same opportunity to ascend through higher levels of judgeship? Is South Carolina willing to tolerate legal incompetence at lower levels of justice in an effort to provide more scheduling latitude for judges at the higher levels? And most important: Does this practice of lesser competence at any level satisfy the constitutional right to due process?
Those who have resisted a more stringent screening initiative point to the days of the Founding Fathers where most colonial and provincial courts were presided over by laymen and non-legal professionals – a practice that places an “ordinary citizen,” much like a lone juror, with the responsibility of considering each side of an argument or hearing. “A law degree is not a prerequisite to being a good judge,” suggests South Carolina Representative Murrell Smith. This may have been true in days past, but lest we forget that today’s complex legal environment, and its current standing of more than 400,000 laws throughout the country, present a different set of responsibilities from the early days of simple land disputes or water rights.
The confirmation process for the position of judgeship within South Carolina equates to “zero scrutiny” for the approximate 300 magistrate judgeships now presiding on various benches throughout the state’s judiciary. ProPublica reported that the appointment process for most judges who are nominated by the Senate, then rubber-stamped by the Governor, appears to “leave the door open for grave episodes of malfeasance and abuse.” The investigation further uncovered gaps in the application process itself, allowing judges an opportunity to avoid having to disclose previous misconduct. “A dozen sitting judges with prior ethics offenses skated through their ... reappointment, no questions asked,” reported ProPublica. In fact, the investigation also uncovered the fact that in South Carolina most magistrates are not lawyers and would not be legally permitted to represent anyone in the very courtroom over which they preside.
Citizens throughout South Carolina have grown more informed about the deficiencies of their current justice system and have begun to petition various state representatives for immediate judicial reform.
A recent bill introduced by state Senator Tom Young, and currently under consideration, would close the qualification loophole that allows incompetent judges to preside, and it would remove those who have remained without formal education in the law.
By comparison, South Carolina demands stricter standards from its barbers – their training must include 1,500 classroom hours and a test before licensure. The good news here may be that if you are falsely convicted by an incompetent judge in South Carolina, at least you will be guaranteed a flawless haircut for your day in court.
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