S.C. lawmakers weigh changes to how judges are selected

South Carolina is one of two states where lawmakers elect judges. Huge changes could require the approval of voters, but not so much for smaller tweaks.
Published: Nov. 7, 2023 at 4:58 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - Could changes be coming to the way South Carolina picks judges?

That was the focus Tuesday at the South Carolina State House as calls for judicial reform get louder – and lawmakers prepare for South Carolina’s upcoming legislative session.

South Carolina is one of two states where lawmakers elect judges.

For the state to switch to a totally different judicial selection system – like gubernatorial appointment or popular election – a constitutional change with voter approval would be needed.

But changes within the current system only need approval from lawmakers.

Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, chairs the Judiciary Committee.

“I believe the work of this committee to enhance the public’s confidence in the judicial branch is a vital part of our preparation for the 2024 legislative session,” Newton said.

A newly formed bipartisan House committee is taking a closer look at judicial reform – and met for the first time Tuesday.

The first person before them was the man likely to become the state’s next Supreme Court chief justice – current Justice John Kittredge – speaking for himself, and not on behalf of the judiciary.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. … Pick some changes that would be more universally accepted, give it a try, see how it goes, measure it, but understand, unlike some efforts, particularly in government, when you go down a path, there’s no retreating,” he said.

Kittredge said South Carolina’s current system has produced good judges.

But he signaled support for giving the governor a greater role in judicial selection, including by allowing the governor to appoint people to the panel that screens judicial candidates – before the General Assembly elects them.

“Allowing the governor, the executive branch, to have some say in the appointment process is a healthy thing,” he said,

Kittredge also vowed to promote diversity on South Carolina benches if he becomes chief justice.

A report released earlier this year found women and African Americans are disproportionately underrepresented on state benches.

“We can have a great bench. We have a great system,” Kittredge said. “But if it doesn’t reflect the people of South Carolina, we are going to lose the respect and integrity of the people we serve.”

This committee will meet again next week.

They will need to submit recommendations to the full House of Representatives by February – when the General Assembly will be back in session.