COLUMBIA, SC — A bill pre-filed in the SC House would let the public elect state judges. Now, South Carolina is one of only two states, along with Virginia, where state lawmakers elect judges. Most states, 27 of them, have their governors appoint judges, either with the consent of the state Senate or from a list of approved candidates cleared by a nominating commission. The other 21 states, including North Carolina and Georgia, have public election of judges.
Rep. Chris Corley, R-Graniteville, pre-filed the bill to change how things are done now. “I feel like the system’s fundamentally corrupt,” he says. “Number one, it’s corrupt when you have attorney-legislators who walk in the courtroom and they’ve elected that judge. Number two, it’s corrupt when it’s used basically as a barter system within the legislature.” He says lawmakers will agree to vote for a particular candidate in exchange for another lawmaker’s support of his favored candidate in another race, or in exchange for support on a bill or budget item.
But Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, the House Minority Leader, who’s also a lawyer, says, “It’s one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. If you look around the country at judicial corruption, you’ll notice that a lot of that has to do with judges are out there begging for money to run for office, looking for lawyers and law firms that can fund their campaigns and then turn around and doing them special favors.”
Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, House Majority Leader and a lawyer, says judges need to remain impartial. “As a candidate for a judgeship, you have to go out and raise money and the only people to raise money from in those cases are lawyers, which creates lawyers supporting the judges who they then appear in front of, which is a very dangerous place to be.”
But Rep. Corley says, “I would disagree that lawyers and law firms are going to be the only place you’re going to get money. You’re going to be able to get money from businesses. You’re going to be able to get money from political activists.”