s.c. Chief Justice Vote Today

Showdown time in S.C. Supreme Court chief justice race: Toal or Pleicones?

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 4, 2014 

— The historic duel in which an associate chief justice has challenged a sitting chief justice was undecided Tuesday, and – unless one of the two candidates withdraws from the race – the issue will go to a vote Wednesday in the Legislature.

It’s historic because never before has an associate justice challenged a chief justice who is seeking re-election.

“Only the Lord knows for sure who’s going to win,” said Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, who is leading the push for votes in the state Senate for Chief Justice Jean Toal.

“All I can tell you is, it’s close,” said Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry. He was gathering votes in the Senate for Associate Justice Costa Pleicones.

Neither Toal nor Pleicones – who both were in the State House lobby on Tuesday talking with lawmakers – would predict victory. Both were smiling, seemingly at ease and told a reporter they felt good about their chances.

“Apparently, both sides think they have the votes,” said Senate President Pro Tem Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, a Toal backer. “Apparently, it’s coming to a vote, and that is surprising a lot of people.”

The vote for the $148,350-a-year chief justice post will take place shortly after noon Wednesday when the 46 members of the Senate gather in the House chambers with the 124 House members. In South Carolina, the 170 members of the General Assembly elect judges and justices.

Often, judicial races end peacefully, without a formal vote. One candidate or the other corrals enough firm pledges of support from the 170 lawmakers that the other candidate drops out to avoid being beaten in a public vote. A candidate needs a simple majority of those voting to win. If a candidate drops out, that also allows lawmakers to avoid taking a side and possibly offending one of their friends or allies.

On Wednesday, a clerk will call the roll of the Senate, with each senator voting in alphabetical order either for Toal or Pleicones.

After the Senate votes, House members will vote within the space of a few minutes by electronic ballot, with the results flashed on boards above the House floor.

The unusual race has put many lawmakers – who know both justices and who see little difference between the two – in a tight place.

“I’m leaning more for Pleicones right now,” said Sen. John Scott, D-Richland. “But I’ll have to wait and see until the time comes.”

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he has decided but didn’t want to reveal who he’s for.

Rep. Walton McLeod, D-Newberry, said, “I know who I’m voting for, but I don’t want it publicized.”

Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, candidate for lieutenant governor, said he will vote for Toal.

Asked how the 30-something-member Black Caucus will vote, Sellers said, “People consider the Black Caucus to be monolithic, but we’re not.”

The Black Caucus was to meet late Tuesday afternoon in a closed session to discuss the candidates. “I expect varying opinions, varying critiques of each judges’ style and jurisprudence. I can guarantee you we won’t all be together,” Sellers said before the meeting.

Lawmakers cite different reasons for voting for each candidate.

Longtime Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, who served in the 1980s in the House with Toal when she was a representative, said he was voting for Toal because he’s known her far longer than he’s known Pleicones.

Once, Fair said, Toal made the crucial difference in getting an anti-pornography bill he authored passed in both the House and the Senate.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said although he likes and respects both candidates, he’s voting for Pleicones because after nearly 14 years of Toal as chief justice, “It’s time for somebody new. I’ve spoken with many friends of mine in the bar (association), and for the most part, they support my position.”

No matter who wins, Lourie said Tuesday afternoon, “It’s too close to call. In my 16 years of service, I’ve never seen such a competitive race.”

The race is also unusual because of the candidates’ ages.

Toal is 70; Pleicones, 69. Both have said, should they win, they will voluntarily step down from the five-member Supreme Court at the end of the year in which they turn the traditional retirement age of 72.

That means Toal would vacate her chief justice seat, if she wins, on Dec. 31, 2015.

If Toal loses, she will leave the court in July, when her current 10-year term expires.

If Pleicones loses, his current term expires in July 2016. However, he could conceivably run for Toal’s chief justice seat when she retires, should she win Wednesday’s election. It would become vacant at the end of December 2015.

If Pleicones were to win the race for Toal’s vacant seat in 2015, he could serve until Dec. 31, 2016 – the end of the year in which he turns 72.

In a measure of just how difficult and controversial a race this is, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said Tuesday he hasn’t decided.

“I will be making up my mind in the next 24 hours,” Sheheen said shortly after noon Tuesday. “It’s a tough decision.”

Besides being the presiding judge on the Supreme Court, the chief justice also serves as the chief executive officer of the $65 million-a-year judicial department, overseeing lower courts, administrators and lawyer discipline.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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