The Buzz

The Buzz: Election of SC Supreme Court chief justice has State House buzzing

abeam @thestate.comNovember 3, 2013 

Bipartisan births: State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, holds his son George Murrell Smith III while state Sen. Thomas McElveen, R-Sumter, holds his daughter Adelaide. Both babies were born last month at Tuomey Regional Medical Center in Sumter.

CHRIS MOORE — Tuomey Healthcare

— Courtroom dramas always have been popular, and South Carolina will have a good one this week when Costa Pleicones challenges Jean Toal to be the chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.

The chief justice is a powerful and prestigious position. By tradition, when a S.C. chief justice steps down, he or she is succeeded as chief by the justice with the next-most seniority. But that system was upended this year when Pleicones challenged Toal for the top job, a challenge that could mean significant changes at the state’s highest court.

Toal, who has been on the state Supreme Court since 1988 and chief justice since 2000, surprised many in the spring, announcing she would seek another term as chief justice – a term she would not be able to finish before reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age of 72. Many legal observers assumed Toal would retire, allowing Pleicones to be the chief for a few years before he retired.

Now, for the first time in decades, there is a contest over who will be chief justice. Whoever wins when legislators vote won’t be able to finish the term, setting the stage for another chief justice’s race in a few years.

And, if Pleicones succeeds in breaking tradition, it could open the door for lawmakers to follow suit the next time they elect a chief justice, ignoring seniority as well.

Among the candidates to succeed Toal, if she wins a new partial term, or Pleicones, if he unseats Toal for what also would be a partial term, as chief justice?

Donald Beatty: If tradition holds, Justice Beatty would win because he has the most seniority. A former state lawmaker, Beatty has the necessary political connections to be a formidable candidate. But many lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly view the former Democratic state representative as liberal.

John Kittredge: Justice Kittredge is next in line in the high court’s order of seniority, after Beatty. He has been a judge since 1991, working his way up from Family Court to Circuit Court to the Court of Appeals before lawmakers put him on the Supreme Court in 2008. He is more conservative than Beatty, which could help him with the Republican-dominated Legislature. But some court observers question Kittredge’s political savvy. Can he work the Senate and House chambers well enough to get the votes he needs?

Kaye Hearn: Justice Hearn is third in line in seniority but has a strong resume. The state’s chief judge is also the chief executive of the state’s judicial system, and Hearn was the chief justice of the S.C. Court of Appeals for 10 years before joining the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Toal has led a technological revolution in the S.C. court system, including electronic case records and filing processes that have been popular with lawmakers and lawyers. Hearn could make an argument that she is in the best position to pick up where Toal left off.

John Few: Few is the current chief judge of the state Court of Appeals. He has run for the state Supreme Court before and is popular with lawmakers. But would it make sense for Few to challenge Beatty or Kittredge for the chief justice’s position? With Toal and Pleicones retiring soon, there will be two vacancies on the high court. If Few does not run for chief justice, he is very likely to get one of those spots. Does he play it safe? Or does he go for it?

Glenn McConnell: This is the wild, wild card. McConnell is now lieutenant governor. Before that, he arguably was the most powerful lawmaker in the state as the president pro tempore of the Senate and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

McConnell would love to have a job that is important again.

But which one?

Insiders tell The Buzz that McConnell is eyeing the presidency of the College of Charleston, his alma mater that has a building and an award named after him.

But if that doesn’t work out, the chief justice’s job would be a good place for McConnell to land – especially because, starting in 2018, the lieutenant governor’s job becomes an appointed position.

The Senate would give its former leader nearly unanimous support. But could McConnell get enough votes in the larger House, which he routinely criticized when he was in the Senate?

It would be unusual for McConnell to be elected to the Supreme Court without first being a judge but not unprecedented.

The last person to do it?

Jean Toal.

Jay Stamper and gay marriage

Did state Democratic leaders tell U.S. Senate candidate Jay Stamper to drop out of the race because he supports gay marriage? That’s what Stamper wants us to believe.

“Apparently, certain well-connected ‘party elders’ believe that my candidacy is a distraction that will only hurt Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen by highlighting his opposition to marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights,” Stamper, who is running for the seat now held by Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, posted on his website Friday.

Democratic Party executive director Amanda Loveday said Stamper’s accusations were “a total fabrication,” saying Stamper asked to meet with Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison “after Democrats around the state expressed concern over revelations in the press about Mr. Stamper’s criminal record, business practices and his motivations for recently moving to South Carolina in order to run for office.

“His policy positions were not the topic of discussion nor the source of the concern that many South Carolinians have expressed about his background and qualifications for office,” Loveday said.

Clearly Stamper – who pleaded guilty to three Nevada state felony charges involving his former financial business, the subject of a Sept. 15 front-page article in The State – does not have the party’s blessing.

But, so far, he’s the only Democrat willing to challenge Graham.

Romney’s war council

Gov. Nikki Haley was part of a war council called together to help Mitt Romney after the GOP presidential candidate’s controversial “47 percent” comment went public during the 2012 campaign, according to a report on the new book from the authors of “Game Change.”

Haley had backed Romney since the S.C. primary in January 2012. She joined former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, and U.S. Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire at Romney’s Boston headquarters to discuss what Romney should do after the gaffe, according to a report on “Double Down” from The Washington Post.

McDonnell was blunt, according to the new book. “For some reason, people don’t like you,” he told Romney.

Bipartisan births

Leave it to Tuomey Regional Medical Center to bring Republicans and Democrats together.

Last month, Republican state Rep. Murrell Smith and Democratic state Sen. Thomas McElveen – both of Sumter – welcomed newborns into the world at Tuomey. Smith had a son – George Murrell Smith III, his second child – and McElveen had a daughter – Adelaide, his first.

Smith and McElveen are not the only ones losing sleep this month.

Republican state Sen. Paul Thurmond and Democratic state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, both of Charleston, also are new dads.

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed. Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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