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Lawmaker seeks scrutiny for judicial panels

By Adam Benson, Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — An Upstate lawmaker wants more scrutiny of two judicial oversight panels that largely declined to take any action against the state’s circuit judges over two decades despite more than 1,000 formal complaints.

The request from Rep. Tommy Stringer, a Greer Republican, targets the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which screens judges in legislative hearings, and the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which considers judicial ethics complaints.

Unlike other states, those processes rarely dislodge or lead to public sanctions against South Carolina circuit judges, who preside over all of the state’s felony and major civil cases. In a House Legislative Oversight Committee meeting Monday, Stringer asked for a review of both bodies. He noted they were formed in the 1990s in the wake of a major Statehouse corruption scandal dubbed “Lost Trust” by the FBI, which took down more than two dozen lawmakers, lobbyists and others.

“The (Judicial Merit Selection Commission) was established 25 years ago in response to Lost Trust to try to bring some level of trust back to state government,” Stringer told his fellow lawmakers. “And I think that the JMSC has operated well since then, until just recently.”

In making his request, Stringer cited “The Untouchables,” the joint investigation published in April by The Post and Courier and Pro-Publica.

Circuit judges have faced more than 1,000 formal complaints over the last two decades, but the Commission on Judicial Conduct has declined to publicly discipline a single one of them, the investigation found.

Separately, when the selection commission screens judges in annual public hearings, it may consider grievances filed against judges but reviews them in secret.

As a result, the ethical conduct of the state’s 49 circuit judges is shrouded in secrecy, making it mostly impossible for the public to know if one of them has ever done anything wrong.

“In the last 20 years, the commission has not punished one single judge for ethical misconduct,” Stringer said. “All of our judges over the past 20 years cannot have been that perfect.”

His request also calls for the screening panel to release more information on its votes, such as stating the reasons why the panel rejects some candidates.

“I’ve been here for 12 years, and I’ve seen times where I don’t believe the most qualified person was elected, or even screened out,” he said. Stringer said he intends to ask the Legislative Audit Council, an independent investigative arm of the General Assembly, to take up the matter. That request would require the sign-off of four other lawmakers.

In public hearings, the screening panel reviews incumbent judges and judicial candidates for seats on the state’s circuit and family courts, as well as the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. The panel also screens the state’s special masters and administrative law judges.

Those names are then sent to the General Assembly, which votes toconfirmjudgesduringeach legislative session. South Carolina is among just two states where legislators primarily pick judges.

The process requires candidates to publicly disclose criminal histories, lawsuits and other details of their qualifications. But for other matters, such as ethical complaints against judges, the panel considers them behind closed doors.

That results in often breezy hearings for sitting judges, with little discussion of complaintsajudgemayhavefaced. The screenings rarely dislodge a sitting circuit judge — just two have withdrawn in 20 years.

But the candidacy this year of Circuit Judge Thomas Russo proved unusually contentious.

Russo, based in Florence, was running unopposed.

The panel publicly questioned him last month about anonymous accusations from a survey of lawyers statewide that he had acted “discriminatory” toward female attorneys. After 90 minutes of further questioning behind closed doors, Russo withdrew his candidacy. The next day, he asked to rescind that withdrawal, insisting he made his decision under “intense pressure and duress,” according to a letter he delivered to the screening commission. The letter was first reported by The State newspaper.

But his request is likely moot — the screening panel insists his candidacy is over, and the seat will be vacant when his term ends in June.