2008-10-03 / Government / Neighborhood

League of Women Voters of SC and SC Women Lawyers Association hold forum

Story and photo by Kristin Lavender kblavender@gmail.com

The League of Women Voters and the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association hosted a community forum September 17, 2008, at The Palmetto Club. The focus was Judicial Selection in South Carolina: Ensuring Quality, Independence, and Diversity on the Bench.

Presentations were given by Chief Justice Jean Toal, USC Law School Professor Emeritus John Freeman, Charleston School of Law Professor John L.S. Limpkins, Attorney Barbara Barton, Attorney and Former Legislator I.S. Leevy Johnson, and Representative Greg Delleney.

Barbara Zia, president of the League of Women Voters in S.C., commended the attendees for their interest in "insuring a fair and independent judiciary in our state." She then introduced Constance Anastopoulo, Charleston School of Law professor, who served as the moderator.

Chief Justice Toal opened the presentation with remarks about the judicial selection in S.C. from her experience as an attorney, a legislator, and a judge. Following an explanation of South Carolina's joint assembly legislative selection, Toal described the diversity of our judicial branch of government as being contingent on the attitudes of the General Assembly adding "You can't promise anyone anything but fairness."

John Freeman, one of four appointed lay members of the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission, described the makeup of the individuals responsible for studying citizen reports, credit cards, and tax records of applicants for a judgeship. A test is given to applicants, which is graded by four examiners and then averaged. With multiple candidates, the commission is allowed to nominate three who are then voted on by the legislature. Freeman said, "I think we have integrity in our judicial selection process. I think we should be proud of it."

John Simpkins said, "We actually do have enough qualified women lawyers and African American lawyers to populate the bench, but they've left." Simpkins said many of our brightest graduates often say about S.C., "There's nothing there for me." Simpkins told the crowded room, "We can create an environment that is appealing, that is welcoming, that is accommodating of differences."

Barbara Barton, an attorney and former SCWLA president and Ladder Group chairman, provided statistics. The general population in S.C. is 51% female while the population of lawyers in S.C. is 30% female. The percentage of women serving on the Circuit Court Bench in S.C. is 13% while the percentage of women with a Masters- In- Equity is 0%.

Barton said we are dominated by white men, whether with the General Assembly or with the Judicial Merit Selection Commission alone, which of its 10 members has only one woman. Barton said, "Justice has to be color blind. It has to be gender blind. And it cannot depend on the amount of money people have who are in that courtroom."

Former S.C. Legislator I.S. Leevy Johnson spoke of politics in the system of judicial selection. He discussed the evolvement into the merit- based system of selection and the previous practice of electing candidates without the merit based system, allowing most of those elected to come from the General Assembly.

This practice was good and bad, explained Johnson. Being a member of the General Assembly means the public has endorsed you and then being selected from that group means your colleagues have endorsed you as well.

Representative Greg Delleney, current chairman of the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission said that when thinking about selecting judges, you've got to think about opportunity, politics, and the pool, adding that "Judicial selection is a branch of government, and you can't take politics out of a branch of government."

South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states that use this hybrid system of merit and legislative selection. The responsibility of narrowing a group of equally qualified individuals to three in order to refer those to the legislature is difficult.

Delleney spoke of Representative Leon Howard's bill. This bill would replace the rule that the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission eliminate all candidates but three candidates and allow the commission to release names of all those who are qualified to serve on the bench.

Following the presentations of each of the panelists, Anastopoulo asked for questions from the audience. Jennifer Wilson, chief judge for the Myrtle Beach Municipal Court, spoke heatedly about Professor Simpkins' comments about S.C.'s inability to keep quality saying, "I have been through the system. I came back to South Carolina. I stayed here, but if I had to do it over again I would not."

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