COLUMBIA, SC — State circuit court judge Alison Lee, whom President Obama nominated last month to be a U.S. District judge, has a varied background, statewide support and the cachet of being a niece of the late trailblazing S.C. civil rights lawyer and federal judge Matthew Perry.
What the Columbia-area resident doesn’t have is the open support of South Carolina’s two U.S. senators – both of whose approval she needs to get a confirmation hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee is the first and essential stepping stone for a would-be federal judge. A nominee must be voted out of the committee to proceed to the Senate for a vote by all 100 senators.
U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Tim Scott, both Republicans, are reviewing her nomination, spokesmen for the two senators said last week.
Despite the lack of open support from the two crucial senators, it’s likely – unless something unforeseen surfaces – that Lee, 54, will become a $174,000-a-year federal judge by December, said Carl Tobias, University of Richmond constitutional law professor who has written on the federal judiciary selection.
Although Graham and Scott haven’t taken a public position on Lee, Obama’s White House almost certainly vetted Lee’s candidacy with Graham and Scott, Tobias said.
“The White House doesn’t nominate anybody without home state support, so I’m just assuming the two senators are OK with this,” he said.
Under the Senate way of doing things, both Graham and Scott must sign what is known as a “blue slip” saying they approve Lee before the nomination can move forward.
“The chairman of the Judiciary Committee will not schedule a hearing unless both senators return the blue slips,” Tobias said. Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., “wants both home state senators to sign off.”
Lee, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was suggested to the White House for possible nomination “along with several others” by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the House’s third-ranking Democrat and the state’s senior member of Congress, according to Clyburn’s office.
“I have known Judge Lee professionally since she arrived in Columbia, and know her to be a woman of deep faith with a strong commitment to the community,” Clyburn said on June 26, when Lee was nominated. “Her varied experiences in the legal and judicial fields make her uniquely qualified to serve on the federal bench.”
Closely watched cases
Lee was one of the first S.C. judges to rule against the lawfulness of video poker in the 1990s.
More recently, she has presided over some closely watched cases.
In April 2012, she gave Tyheem Henrey, the instigator of the nationally publicized, savage beating of Carter Strange in Five Points, 15 years in prison for assault and battery after Henrey pleaded guilty.
In January, Lee got involved in a case that recently has received widespread publicity in the Columbia area. That month, Lee consolidated bonds and reduced the total from $225,000 to $175,000 for a young burglary suspect named Lorenzo Young, who earlier this month was charged with the July 1 slaying of Kelly Hunnewell.
Although some have criticized Lee for lowering the bond, a half-dozen lawyers interviewed by The State newspaper said she did nothing wrong.
“Based on every fact I know, she acted appropriately,” said Dick Harpootlian, former 5th Circuit solicitor for 12 years who’s now a trial attorney. In any case, $175,000 is a large bond, he said. “I’ve had people charged with murder who don’t get that high a bond.”
Also, Harpootlian said, major blame for Hunnewell’s death seems to be on either the Columbia police department or the current 5th Circuit solicitor’s office.
In June, before Hunnewell was killed, both the police and the solicitor’s office apparently ignored repeated pleas by residents to arrest the man who would be her accused killer, Young, after he became a known suspect in a brazen daylight burglary in the upscale Heathwood community.
Clyburn is aware of the potential for controversy over the Young case.
Calling Hunnewell’s death “an outrageous crime” and a Columbia tragedy, Clyburn said last week that although it’s not proper for him to comment on an ongoing legal matter, “I
can say Judge Lee is highly qualified to fill the judgeship for which she has been nominated.”
“I would caution folks to refrain from sowing division by pointing fingers in a manner that further exacerbates this painful situation.”
Since becoming an at-large circuit judge in 1999 – the state’s first black female judge – Lee has presided over some 450 cases that went to trial or had judgments. Of those, some 90 percent were jury trials, some 80 percent were civil cases and 20 percent criminal, according to information Childs gave the Judiciary Committee.
Before that, the 1979 Vassar College and 1982 Tulane Law School grad had a varied legal experience. From 1994 to 1999, she was a state administrative law judge hearing cases involving state regulations in areas from taxes to insurance to the environment. From 1989 to 1994, she helped draft state laws for the S.C. Legislative Council, and from 1984 to 1989 and she was an associate with the McNair Law Firm.
After law school, Lee also served as clerk for former S.C. Court of Appeals Judge Bert Goolsby and a Louisiana appeals court judge.
People who know her speak highly of her.
“She’s uniquely qualified for the post,” said Goolsby, who is also a former chief deputy attorney general for South Carolina. “She’s well-spoken, always gracious, with a sense of humor.” Goolsby said that while she was his law clerk, she devised a system of studying cases that he continued to use long after she went on to new jobs.
Goolsby’s friendship with Perry, Lee’s uncle, is a legend in state legal circles.
In Goolsby’s early days, he was an assistant state attorney general charged with defending the state’s rigid segregation laws still in force in the 1960s. He often opposed Perry, who then was a crusading lawyer risking his life by appearing in courtrooms across the state as he represented African-Americans who had been jailed for sit-ins and other protest acts. The new U.S. courthouse in Columbia is named for Perry, who won numerous landmark cases expanding constitutional rights.
Despite their opposing roles in turbulent times, Goolsby and Perry quickly became great friends – a friendship that lasted until Perry’s death in 2011.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, for many years a close Perry friend, said she had been following Lee’s career.
“She’s been marvelously successful at everything she touched,” said Toal, who has chosen Lee “quite frequently” to sit in as an acting associate Supreme Court justice when a justice had to recuse him- or herself.
Federal Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston, who had cases before Lee when he was a Columbia lawyer, said, “She is just a cool customer. She’s very organized, and let me tell you, you can’t be a judge without being organized.
“She’s methodical, well-rounded, knows the law, careful, is attentive – she is all those things,” Gergel said.
If confirmed, Lee will fill the post of Judge Cameron McGowan Currie, who will be taking a senior, or semi-retired, status.