South Carolina editorial roundup: Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021


Charleston Post and Courier

Nov. 29

Deadbeats on the bench? State chief justice's order should spur reform

We've seen a lot of evidence over the past few years that South Carolina is blessed with an overabundance of incompetent and ethically challenged magistrate judges: judges who preside over cases where they have clear conflicts of interest, who refuse to listen to defendants' claims of self-defense or even tell them they have a right to a lawyer and who consistently fail to apply the state's criminal and civil laws as written.

If the Legislature needed any more evidence that it's past time to overhaul our magistrate court system, Chief Justice Don Beatty provided it earlier this month when he issued a court order that no court should ever have to issue.

"It has come to my attention," Justice Beatty wrote, "that some magistrates, despite being appointed to and compensated for a full-time position, are consistently working less than a 40-hour work week."

Now, it might not be so awful if magistrates weren't bothering to show up at the office because they had nothing to do - in which case the problem would be that we have too many magistrates. But as anyone who deals with our courts knows, that's not the case.

"As of the end of August 2021," the chief justice continued, "there were 270,024 pending cases in magistrate courts statewide. It will not be possible to address this backlog of cases if magistrates are not performing their official duties for the requisite number of hours."

So Justice Beatty reminded magistrates that not putting in a full work week could amount to violating judicial canons that require judges to "uphold the integrity … of the judiciary," "perform the duties of judicial office … diligently," "dispose of all judicial matters promptly, efficiently and fairly" and "cooperate with other judges and court officials in the administration of court business."

He officially ordered full-time magistrates to work 40 hours a week, and he ordered part-time magistrates to "spend a number of hours in the performance of their official judicial duties … equal to the hours of their part-time position."

Where to start? With the fact that our chief justice feels the need to order judges to show up for work? Or perhaps with the fact that our Supreme Court long ago felt the need to adopt canons that require judges to perform the duties of their office and cooperate with other judges in order to get the job done?

This is the sort of stuff you tell kindergartners - not professionals.

Of course, that's the problem: Although there are some conscientious, dedicated and competent magistrates, there's nothing in law or practice that requires them to act like professionals or even slightly conscientious public servants. They don't have to be lawyers. Only for the past two decades have we even required newly appointed magistrates to be college graduates. It wasn't until 1988 that the Legislature finally required magistrates to graduate from high school - and that provision didn't apply to anyone already on the bench at the time.

In fact, there's a lot more than that about South Carolina's laws and practices that mitigates against professionalism - and against keeping political hacks out of the job. If not political in the partisan sense, too many magistrate appointments are certainly political in the sense that they involve candidates ingratiating themselves to a local state senator.

Officially, the governor appoints magistrates, and the full Senate confirms or rejects them. In reality, individual senators hand-pick the magistrates who serve the area they represent; the governor knows it's a waste of time to try to appoint anyone else, and even when other senators have concerns, they don't object to their colleagues' magistrate choices because they follow the legislative version of the Golden Rule: Don't do unto others lest they do unto you.

Like higher-court judges, magistrates are appointed for fixed terms and can only be removed midterm by the Supreme Court. But while the court has been much more willing to reprimand and even suspend magistrates than other judges, it hasn't been so fast to remove them. And those disciplinary actions don't keep senators from reappointing magistrates, so for the sort of person who would need to be told to show up for work, it's unclear how much good threatened disciplinary action would do - so long as the unprofessional magistrates keep dispensing "justice" the way their Senate patrons want them to.

Justice Beatty's order didn't say how widespread the lazy-magistrate problem is, but it's obviously widespread enough that he didn't believe it would be enough simply to reach out quietly to warn a handful to get back to work. That's unfortunate, because it means all those magistrates who work diligently to perform their duties are painted with the same brush as the deadbeats.

The court should act quickly to discipline those judges who persist in their neglect - and that discipline should be handled in a very public way.

And the Legislature should take further steps to professionalize our magistrate system - beginning (but not ending) with public screenings of nominees and judges up for reappointment, which should make it more difficult for senators to look the other way when their colleagues try to fill the bench with political hacks.

The (Greenwood) Index-Journal

Nov. 27

Emails matter as they shed light on what is true

If, as a taxpayer, you believe what public employees do matters and that they should be held accountable for their actions, and you believe it is their obligation to be transparent in what they do and how they spend tax dollars, then the tale surrounding John de la Howe school should matter to you. And you should be angry.

It's a holiday week, and the story that graced the front page of Wednesday's edition of the Index-Journal was a tad long, so maybe you set it aside. That's fine, but don't set it aside for good.

It doesn't matter whether you have any ties to the South Carolina Governor's School for Agriculture at John de la Howe. It doesn't matter that the school is tucked away amid hundreds of acres in rural McCormick County. It doesn't matter that the school, its staff, its administrators and fewer than 100 students have little impact on your daily life.

What matters is that the school, its staff and administrators are on the public payroll, and you as a taxpayer are helping fund its operation, its bills and employees' salaries.

But, you say, the newspaper seemed to have an insatiable appetite for emails among those associated with the school. What's the big deal about emails? Don't we all use email as a primary means of communication?

Yes. And that is precisely why we have such an appetite for the content of certain emails. You see, access to email communication about the public's business will feed what should be every taxpayer's hunger for truth and transparency.

Public officials can answer queries about their work, how they are spending tax dollars and whether they are operating within the boundaries of state procurement and ethics laws, but their email exchanges can do one of two things: prove them right, prove them wrong. And when it comes to the public's business, those emails belong to the public.

With certain exceptions provided under the state's Freedom of Information Act, the public should have the expectation that it could be cc'd on virtually all email exchanges among public employees. That, of course, would be nearly impossible to do, which is why FOIA grants the public access to those emails that fall within the guidelines of the state law.

When the public or a couple of newspapers that set out to inform the public request the same information, there should also be the expectation that responses would match. As you read - or will read - that did not happen when the Post and Courier and Index-Journal requested a number of public documents from de la Howe. The school, and the school's attorney, either do not know why or don't care. Or, perhaps, both.

The school's president, Tim Keown, seems to operate on the belief that he has no obligation to be transparent with the public through the newspapers' requests. He also seems to believe that ignoring repeated requests for interviews and information that can be provided via in-person or emailed responses will result in an end to stories being published about the goings-on at his school.

What is ironic is that one email we and the Charleston-based newspaper received contains this from Keown: "We've done nothing wrong. Simple as that."

If nothing has been done wrong in how the school procured materials and doled out contracts, if all parties involved in the school have remained above reproach with respect to state ethics laws, then why build a wall much like the crypt that surrounds the remains of the school's founder, John de la Howe, deep within its campus? Why remain silent and not agree to open discussion, open books and access to emails that would uphold your stance that you've done nothing wrong?

That certainly would serve the public far better than sharing your anger over being questioned in the first place with such emailed statements as "I won't be ran (sic) over by this dude (Post and Courier reporter Tony Bartelme)."

John de la Howe is an agriculture school. Its operatives should then know that lots of sunshine on public affairs promotes a healthy and strong crop. Keeping the public's affairs in dank and dark corners promotes mold and kills a crop.

State lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster in particular should conduct a thorough investigation and demand full cooperation, full transparency and plenty of sunshine.

The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat

Nov. 21

Losing people proving costly in remapping

If ever there is proof of what the census means, it is illustrated in the redrawing of political lines based on population changes. Orangeburg County lost population from 2010 to 2020 and is now finding out what that can mean in terms of changing legislative district lines.

Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto is seeing his district that includes Greater Orangeburg and parts of the county to the west, as well as other counties to the west, change with a loss of population. For the first time, his district would expand all the way into Aiken County to pick up population. He loses portions of Hampton and Colleton counties.

By far the most controversial change is being proposed for S.C. House districts in Orangeburg and surrounding counties. And there is reason for concern by people in Greater Orangeburg beyond the protestations of veteran Orangeburg Rep. Jerry Govan.

Govan, who has represented the Greater Orangeburg District 95 since 1992, is seeing that district carved up in a plan making its way toward House approval in December. Greater Orangeburg - essentially the area within a five-mile radius of downtown - is being split. The east would be in Orangeburg Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter's present district. The west would become part of a new district that would include western areas of the county and Bamberg County, currently represented by Rep. Justin Bamberg, who is a member of the panel charged with drawing the new House districts.

Bamberg makes the case there are connections that make Orangeburg and Bamberg a more logical combination of areas than the previous district. But Bamberg County has traditionally been part of a House district that includes areas of Allendale and Barnwell counties. And even though Bamberg is right that there are many connections between Orangeburg and Bamberg, the latter county's economic development apparatus, for example, is tied to Barnwell, Allendale and Colleton, not Orangeburg.

Making matters worse for Govan, he has been drawn out of both the districts splitting Greater Orangeburg. He would find himself in the district currently represented by Calhoun County Democrat Russell Ott. Govan has proposed a plan that he says protects the integrity of two resident representatives from Orangeburg County, but it was rejected by the remap panel in favor of the plan that splits Greater Orangeburg.

Govan is urging the people of Orangeburg to make their objections known by contacting the chairman of the S.C. House Judiciary Committee. With those objections being echoed by a vocal contingent in Bamberg County, perhaps there will be a new look at the plan before it is approved. But don't count on it.

Just as elections have consequences, so does the census and the changes it can mean when politicians are at work redrawing lines that potentially decide electoral winners and losers. Nowhere does the impact of S.C. reapportionment in 2021 stand to have more impact than Orangeburg County, the state's second-largest county in land area with a micropolitan area at its center.