S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson will ask Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty to recuse himself from criminal cases because of comments the judge made during a speech earlier this year.
Wilson sent a letter to 13 solicitors, who have complained about comments Beatty made during their annual conference. The letter, sent Dec. 12, cites case law that Wilson said he will use to seek Beatty’s recusal from some cases. He also said he will support solicitors who ask Beatty to recuse himself from any disciplinary hearings for attorneys on their staffs.
“Accordingly, with these legal principles in mind, based upon Justice Beatty’s remarks, we will seek his recusal in any specific case where warranted under the law,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson closed the letter by saying, “In summary, while we believe that Justice Beatty is a fine man and dedicated jurist, the solicitors were correct to question his intemperate remarks, and we agree with you that many of the remarks were inappropriate.”
The attorney general in South Carolina oversees the state’s prosecutors.
Efforts on Friday afternoon to reach Beatty, one of five Supreme Court jurists, as well as Chief Justice Jean Toal were unsuccessful.
Toal, who is up for re-election in February, was asked about the controversy Nov. 5 during a Judicial Merit Selection Commission. She told a panel of legislators that she did think anyone on the Supreme Court had pre-judged anything.
“I’m aware of the controversy of course ...,” Toal answered. “I can only tell you I believe the court would treat any legislative enactment with the same fairness and objectivity with every decision we make. I believe my brothers and sister on the court would join me in saying just that.”
The solicitors’ push to have Beatty, a native of Spartanburg, recuse himself from criminal cases began in October. Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, the lead prosecutor in Richard and Kershaw counties, is one of the 13 solicitors to ask for Beatty’s recusal.
The 13 contend Beatty demonstrated a clear bias against prosecutors in his remarks at a September solicitors’ gathering in Myrtle Beach and cannot be counted upon to be impartial in his rulings.
In a Nov. 21 letter to the solicitors, Wilson said he reviewed a summary of Beatty’s comments that were provided by three solicitors. He said as the chief prosecutor in the state, “I fully share the concerns of each of you regarding these unfortunate remarks.”
According to previous news reports, Beatty, elected to the Supreme Court in 2007, told the audience of prosecutors they had “been getting away with too much for too long.” The court will no longer overlook unethical conduct, such as witness tampering, selective and retaliatory prosecutions, perjury and suppression of evidence, Beatty said.
He added, “You better follow the rules or we are coming after you and will make an example,” according to a summary of his comments published earlier this year in The (Charleston) Post and Courier.
“The pendulum has been swinging in the wrong direction for too long and now it’s going in the other direction,” the summary quotes him as saying. “Your Bar licenses will be in jeopardy. We will take your license.”
In his Dec. 12 letter, Wilson used the words “confrontational and threatening” to describe Beatty’s remarks and said the judge’s speech could have used “a far less adversarial tone.”
Beatty’s words came across as accusing all prosecutors of using unethical tactics to win cases, the attorney general’s letter said.
“... Solicitors and their staffs are dedicated professionals, devoted to the difficult task of protecting the safety of their communities, securing the rights of victims, and upholding the rule of law,” Wilson wrote.
“Thus, for him to leave each prosecutor with the impression that he or she is facing potential disbarment or other judicial sanction cannot help but harm prosecutors’ morale and discourage those who wish to make public service and prosecution their career.”
Staff writer Adam Beam contributed to this report. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.