S.C. continues to weigh changes to judicial selection process

Attorney General Alan Wilson is among those saying public confidence in the judiciary is waning – so something needs to change.
Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 7:05 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - South Carolina’s top prosecutor wants the state to revamp the way it picks judges.

Attorney General Alan Wilson is among those saying public confidence in the judiciary is waning – so something needs to change.

South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature elects judges.

And while the state’s three, coequal branches of government are supposed to operate under a series of checks and balances on each other, Attorney General Alan Wilson said his branch, the executive, is left out of this process.

“Right now, we’re not at the same table as the legislature. We’re not even at the kids’ table. We’re outside, with our face pressed to the glass,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s recommendations focus on this group – the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

It annually screens judicial candidates, determines who’s qualified, and advances up to three candidates for each seat to the General Assembly for its elections.

The 10-member commission is predominantly made up of lawmakers – who are typically also lawyers.

Among Wilson’s recommendations – he believes lawyer-legislators should not be able to serve on the screening panel – an appeal also made by several South Carolina solicitors.

Their reasoning is that the current system produces, at the very least, a perception of unfairness, if not actual impropriety because the lawmakers who screen and later select judges could later appear before them in court as attorneys.

Wilson believes the governor – the head of state’s executive branch – should be able to appoint most, if not all, members of the commission.

Right now, the governor doesn’t appoint any.

“We want to be an equal partner in how judges that go through the JMSC are selected,” he said.

Rep. Micah Caskey – a lawyer who chairs the judicial screening panel and also sits on a House committee studying judicial reform – questions whether that would be an improvement.

“I’m saying that if a legislator who serves on JMSC is tarnished with the appearance or potential appearance of a conflict of interest, that that same appearance or actual conflict of interest would attach to an appointee who practices law,” said Caskey, R-Lexington.

Wilson says this switch would bring statewide accountability to the process instead of through lawmakers who only represent the people within their districts.

“Everyone gets to vote for the governor, and if there is an inappropriate or perceived conflict of interest by a gubernatorial appointment, exercising their authority as a member of the JMSC, as an attorney appearing before the judges, people can go directly to the governor,” Wilson said.

The changes Wilson recommends would need legislative approval.

The attorney general told lawmakers he isn’t advocating for a constitutional change – like moving to a system in which the governor appoints judges – or voters elect them.