COLUMBIA - Ancestors, family pedigrees, old friendships, college ties, easy cheer and even merit were all part of the mix last week in a ritual where candidates for South Carolina's open judgeships parade before a judicial screening commission to see if they have the right stuff to make it on the bench.
"Your daddy gave me my first job over in Sumter," Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, one of 10 screening committee members, said to judge hopeful Boyd Young, a veteran Columbia criminal defense lawyer noted for his expertise in one of the law's most difficult fields: death penalty cases.
Smith, one of the General Assembly's most sociable politicians and, as chairman of the House budget committee, one of the most powerful, told Young, "You attended The Citadel, like your father and your uncles and most of your family have over the years, and achieved the honor of the Summerall Guards while you were there."
"Yes, sir, I did," replied Young, who then schmoozed with Smith about the humbler aspects of the Summerall Guards, an elite precision drill platoon at the state's military college.
Young was one of 14 candidates for last week's most sought-after position - a vacant at-large state trial judge's post that pays $192,400 a year along with a law clerk and an administrative assistant. Nearly all candidates were highly qualified in the first round of what one legislator who sits on the screening committee for judges described as legal, high-stakes competition akin to a popular movie where only contestant remains alive at the end.
"It is like the Hunger Games - many are so qualified, but you only choose three," said S.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.
All 14 candidates were easily found qualified last week by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. But the board - as required by law - nominated only three. Their names will be forwarded to the 170 General Assembly members, who in February will choose just one.
The three chosen last week for the runoff are:
- B. Alex Hyman, an Horry County lawyer and Conway city council member. Hyman's father, Larry Hyman, was a circuit court judge before recently retiring. It likely won't hurt Hyman's candidacy that State Sen. Luke Rankin, (whose late father, O.A. "Rock" Rankin, was also a judge) is from Horry County. Rankin is the influential chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and also chair of the judicial screening commission.
- H. Steven DeBerry IV, a Florence lawyer and member of the Florence County Council. DeBerry is first cousin to Rep. Smith, the powerful House member and screening commission member. Asked by The State whether that familial tie presented a conflict of interest for Smith, Smith said he doesn't have a conflict with voting on his cousin because he's not immediate family, but he abstained from voting anyway and plans to stay neutral on his candidacy. "He wants to do this on his own merit, I would presume, and doesn't want me to distract from his campaign. ... It's probably best that if he's going to be qualified that he does it on his own merit."
- Dale Van Slambrook, a former city magistrate and Berkeley County master-in-equity, a judge that handles mostly cases involving real estate. As a lawyer, Van Slambrook handled such a variety of cases and has such a good reputation that one screening commission member, Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, a longtime acquaintance, told him, "I can't think of anyone who is more qualified."
The fact that most of the 14 candidates had ties to the judiciary or public officials was a given.
"If you find a lawyer coming in here that doesn't doesn't have connections, I promise you they won't make it out," said Rutherford, himself a prominent defense attorney. "We have a very small legal community. If somebody came in here and didn't have a connection to anybody in this room, it would be odd. I don't know how they would make it out."
Personal connections help insure that quality candidates are chosen, members say, because no one wants incompetent judges. Screening also includes a pre-hearing investigation where candidates produce financial records and are evaluated by local citizen group advisory boards and the S.C. Bar Association, the state's largest lawyers' group. Comments on the candidates' personal and professional attributes are also solicited from lawyers and others. Some candidates drew more than 100 comments.
Even the schmoozing at the hearings between candidates and commission members has a point, said Rutherford.
"Someone may make all A's in law school, but if they can't interact with people, they shouldn't be on the bench," Rutherford said. "A judge has to interact with people."
Candidates get asked tough questions, too.
Young, the death penalty defense lawyer, was asked if he "would probably be inclined too much to favor criminal defendants."
Young answered, "I don't think I would. I would favor the rule of law and make sure it was applied appropriately."
Young was also asked by commission member Pete Strom if, after having defended so many killers (a big recent case was representing child killer Tim Jones, now on death row), he (Young) could give someone the death penalty if the accused killer chose to be tried by a judge without a jury.
Yes, said Young, if evidence showed the killer was the kind of criminal the death penalty is meant for: "the worst of the worst."
The process of having state judges chosen by the screening commission, and then the 170 members of the General Assembly, has detractors and supporters. Critics say popular elections or a method that includes screening by independent legal groups would be more open. Others say politics should not be part of the judiciary at all and advocate for a system similar to the federal one, where the governor would nominate judges with the advice and consent of state legislators. Defenders of the current system say it produces strong judges and weak candidates are weeded out.
CONTROVERSY OFTEN VEILED IN SECRECY?
The at-large seat the 14 candidates were running for had been occupied by veteran Judge Thomas Russo, who declined to run again after disclosures that he had made extremist political posts on Facebook denouncing "illegal immigrants," "the liberal left" and "the mainstream media." Judges are supposed to refrain from any activity that might cause people to question their impartiality. Normally, incumbent judges face no opposition and are re-elected until they retire or reach the mandatory retirement at 72.
Russo's controversy illustrates the secrecy that surrounds aspects of South Carolina's judiciary. Russo had been questioned in private about his Facebook postings by a confidential judge's disciplinary board. That part of his record only surfaced by accident and by The State newspaper, which obtained copies of some of the judge's postings.
Usually, but not always, judicial candidates will drop out before the vote, seeing through behind the scenes lobbying of lawmakers that support is coalescing behind another candidate, making it difficult for the public to know who their elected officials supported.
Commission members also said this week that a recent pay hike of more than $50,000 in state trial judges' pay - from the high $130,000s to the current $192,400 - attracted more top candidates than ever. Most good lawyers make far more than $130,000, and it is hard to attract qualified people who want to be a judge for that amount.
Senator Rankin said the pay raise helped get better candidates. "It's definitely attracting better people. This has been a good crop."
Among the other 14 candidates who sought Russo's seat:
- Richland County magistrate Daniel Coble. He is the son of former longtime Columbia mayor Bob Coble and the grandson of the late S.C. Attorney General Daniel McLeod.
- Kate Whetstone Usry, a lawyer and the daughter of now-retired longtime state Judge Charles Whetstone.
- Derek Shoemake, an assistant U.S. Attorney who teaches civil litigation in USC's paralegal program and handles multiple federal prosecutor duties including overseeing the office's coronavirus task force and handling white collar crime prosecution for the Pee Dee region.
- William V. Meetz, a lawyer and son of beloved longtime State Senate Chaplain the late George Meetz, who for 56 years opened Senate sessions with a prayer.
- Franklin Shuler, a lawyer whose wife, Jane Shuler, is an ethics expert who has worked in both the State Senate and House of Representatives.
- Regina Lewis, a respected Columbia lawyer and mediator with expertise in multiple legal areas.
Qualifications to be a state judge are minimal. A judge must be 32, a citizen, an attorney for eight years and have lived in South Carolina for five years.
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