Who should choose our new judges?

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Who should choose our new judges?

By ADAM BEAM
The (Columbia) State
Published Wednesday, December 5, 2012   |  557 Words  |  

COLUMBIA -- Lawmakers will elect nine judges to newly created judicial seats next month -- possibly including one Beaufort County nominee -- in the largest and most contested judicial election in almost two decades.

Critics aren't pleased. They say legislators should not elect judges.

It is the first time lawmakers have created new judicial seats in 16 years.

Beaufort County master-in-equity Marvin Dukes III is a finalist for Circuit Court Seat 15, along with Hemingway attorney Jerome Askins III and Maite Murphy, a master-in-equity from Dorchester and the wife of state Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester.

Dukes declined to comment.

Lawmakers added the nine new seats -- three Circuit Court and six Family Court positions -- earlier this year to relieve the state's huge backlog of cases, especially in Family Court. All the judgeships are at-large seats, meaning the judges elected will travel around the state to hear cases.

More than 59 people applied for the nine new positions, leading to a weeklong public hearing by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. The commission eliminated 34 of the candidates, leaving 25 finalists vying for nine seats.

South Carolina is one of two states -- Virginia is the other -- where legislators elect judges. That method of selecting judges is controversial; some say judges should be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

After the indictment and resignation of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and the ethics investigation of Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this year, S.C. lawmakers are poised to pass the state's first major ethics overhaul in more than 20 years.

But so far, no lawmakers are talking seriously about changing how the state elects its judges.

"Legislators should not be choosing the judges who interpret the laws they pass. It flies in the face of the separation of powers," said Ashley Landess, executive director of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council.

Landess particularly dislikes the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a commission whose 10 members are appointed by the speaker of the House, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the president pro tempore of the Senate. The commission members include John Davis Harrell, brother of House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

"The accountability is so diffused that the public has really almost zero input," Landess said. "If you have concerns about a judicial nominee, how are you really going to influence Bobby Harrell's brother?"

But Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said South Carolina's system is better than a public election, in which judges court support and raise money.

"Our judicial process is probably not perfect, but there are safeguards in it," Herbkersman said. "The final votes are done by legislators, but that is after the screening process with the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, and there are citizens on that screening board."

Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, chairman of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, said it is impossible to remove politics from government, and the judiciary is a branch of government.

"When all these people talk about taking politics out of government ... (really) they want to change it to their brand of politics, whatever their brand might be," Delleney said.

Staff writer Allison Stice contributed to this report.