Forum to address diversity in courts

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Today, as part of an effort to increase the number of women and minority judges across America, the League of Women Voters of South Carolina will host a conference in Charleston addressing the importance of a diverse and independent judiciary in the Palmetto State.

That movement will make its way to Sumter next week as the local League of Women Voters hosts the first in a series of educational forums about the state's judicial system.

The League of Women Voters of Sumter County will host a forum Monday night for members as well as the public. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the seminar room of the Health Sciences Center, 133 S. Main St., on the Central Carolina Technical campus. The program is free and open to the public.

The forum, and the ones to follow during the year-long initiative, will help inform the public about the duties and responsibilities of judicial officials across the state, as well as how they're selected, said Chuck Gibbs, president of the local chapter.

The meetings will also serve as a way of showing people the importance of having a variety of genders, races and ethnicities in the state's judicial system.

"The purpose of this study is to see if there is a need for more diversity and how we can achieve that goal," said Gibbs.

Monday's speaker will be Judge Kathy Ward, Sumter County's chief magistrate. Gibbs said he hopes to have Sumter County Probate Judge Dale Atkinson and 3rd Circuit Judge Jeff Young at future forums.

Gibbs said Ward will talk about how magistrates are selected, what kinds of cases they hear and answer questions about the profession.

Barbara Zia, president of the state's League of Women Voters, said the the 11 leagues throughout the state will each run their own programs aimed at getting the program's overall message out. As of June 2010, only 56 out of the state's 186 judges were women, and only six of 46 Circuit Court judges were female, according to a news release.

Of the 186 judges in the state, only 17 are black, and there are no Latino or Asian judges.

"In South Carolina, as in many states, there is a lack of diversity in terms of gender, race and ethnicity on our state courts," said Zia. "We feel part of that disparity is the fact that we don't have diversity in the process we use to select judges."

Many of the state's higher judges are appointed by a merit committee, a system Zia said the state league wants to keep instead of shifting toward an election system. "We want to keep outside influence out of the selection process," she said.

Zia said she's happy with the quality of the state's judges, but more diversity needs to be injected into the selection process. Through this statewide initiative, she hopes that can be achieved.

To find out more information about the Sumter meeting Monday, call Gibbs at (803) 775-0487.

Reach Nick McCormac at (803) 774-1214.