On Tuesday night, with torrential rain pounding outside, the League of Women Voters of South Carolina concluded its two-year Initiative on Judicial Independence and Diversity with a forum, "The State of the Judiciary in South Carolina: From Research to Reality" held at the University of South Carolina Law School in Columbia. 

Over 110 people braved the thunderstorm to join the high-level audience, including members of the South Carolina General Assembly, such as Senator Jakie Knotts, a long-time Judicial Merit Selection Commission member; state judges, including Court of Appeals Judge James Lockemy; leaders of local partner organizations, such as Lonnie Randolph Jr., President of the South Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and representatives of national fair courts organizations, including Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.   League of Women Voters of the United States President Elisabeth MacNamara, Deputy Executive Director Zaida Arguedas, and I attended on behalf of the national office.

The forum began with an introduction from League of Women Voters of South Carolina Co-President Barbara Zia, who set the stage for Professor John Simpkins of the Charleston School of Law to present research on the state of judicial selection in South Carolina.  He explained the process by which judges are selected in the state:  a ten-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission, of which six members must be sitting legislators, reviews all candidates for a judicial vacancy and advances three to the General Assembly for selection.  Dominated by legislators at each step, the system gives rise to an unofficial lobbying process at the statehouse that requires extensive time and resources from those seeking judgeships, and has led to fears that political horse-trading may impact which candidates reach the General Assembly for a vote.  Professor Simpkins described the system as “a good idea poorly executed.”

Professor Simpkins reported that South Carolina falls in the middle of the national rankings when it comes to diversity.  Citing statistics for each level of the state bench, Professor Simpkins demonstrated that the upper echelons of the courts are much more diverse than the lower ones, in part due to their higher visibility and smaller size.  Professor Simpkins' overall conclusion was that judicial merit selection is good for South Carolina, producing excellent judges that are better insulated from political and corporate pressures than their elected peers in other states, but that the process could be optimized to improve transparency, public trust, and the chance of diverse judicial candidates reaching the General Assembly for a vote.

An all-star panel, comprised of Senator Larry Martin, new Judiciary Committee Chair and Judicial Merit Selection Commission Vice Chair; Representative Leon Howard, past Chair, South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus; Judge Carolyn Matthews, President of the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association; Robert Wilcox, University of South Carolina Law School Dean; and Alice Paylor, South Carolina Bar Association President-Elect, responded to Professor Simpkins’ findings in a discussion moderated by Professor Constance Anastopoulo of the Charleston School of Law.  The panel discussed the importance of a level playing field; the need for better data on the pool of attorneys eligible for judgeships; the need to diversify the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, especially to include former judges who have actually “done the job;” the need to minimize the financial burden of seeking a judgeship; and the importance of bolstering the pipeline of minority candidates and keeping graduates in-state.  Panelists evaluated possible reforms, such as increasing the number of judicial candidates reported out to the General Assembly, that could help address the concerns raised.

Attendees praised the forum for its excellent, level-headed treatment of South Carolina's judicial selection system, and agreed that the discussion primed the pump for future League advocacy around fair courts issues.