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BEAUFORT -- Beaufort County lawyers on Monday endorsed the candidacy of Beaufort lawyer Diane DeWitt for the 14th Judicial Circuit seat in a race that is beginning to draw criticism for its candidate selection process.'
The Beaufort County Bar Association gave DeWitt, who also is a former public defender, 65 votes out of a total 90 cast. The other two candidates, former County Council Chairman Thomas C. Taylor and Hilton Head Island lawyer Carmen Tevis Mullen, received 11 and 15 votes, respectively.'
It was the first time in 15 years that the local bar had endorsed a candidate, members said. Most recent judicial races have been uncontested, bar president Erin Dean said.'
The state legislature will vote Feb. 15 to fill a judgeship on the circuit court being vacated by the retiring Jackson V. Gregory in July. The circuit covers Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.'
But the judge selection process has come under criticism from some lawyers who privately question whether the right candidates have been moved through the selection commission. '
Former state Rep. Edie Rogers, who represented Beaufort from 1996 to 2002, told a meeting of the Beaufort County's Legislative Delegation Monday that the process was flawed and that the screening commission was certifying candidates with questionable qualifications.'
"I just think that instead of the most qualified person being selected, we've got something that has strayed far from that these days," she said in an interview after the meeting.'
Judicial candidates are elected by the legislature, but the Judicial Merit Selection Commission determines which candidates the legislature can consider. Until about 10 years ago, all candidates considered qualified could get a vote, Rogers said. That system was much more fair, she told the legislators.'
"Qualified people do not always make it out of there," she said. "I think they need to look at the rules and some changes need to be made."'
Beaufort County Master-in-Equity Curtis Coltrane, the former attorney for the Town of Hilton Head Island and the only sitting judge in the five-member applicant pool, did not make it past the commission, even though he was found qualified. A Jan. 17 report said Coltrane could not answer questions about two political party meetings he attended, which would be a violation of the judicial code of conduct. Coltrane has had no comment on that issue.'
DeWitt also earlier this month received the endorsement of the Lowcountry Citizens Committee, a group of area residents who interview applicants and advise the selection commission.'
The committee questioned Mullen's application on the grounds that they were unsure of her residency in the 14th circuit. It also questioned the experience of Taylor, who has not been a practicing lawyer for about eight years.