It could get downright risky to criticize a state judge.
If a bill before the S.C. Senate becomes law, some people who file formal complaints against a state judge could be sent to prison for up to a year.
Specifically, the bill, which was passed by the S.C. House and is now in the Senate, says that anyone who “wilfully” files “a groundless complaint” against a judge could be convicted of a misdemeanor and face a $1,000 fine and up to a year behind bars.
And if officials really wanted to punish someone who filed a “groundless” complaint against a judge, they could also assess a civil penalty against the person of up to $1,000.
Some worry such a law would go too far.
Lee Coggiola, head of the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, said such a law would have a “chilling effect on the public’s right to file a complaint.”
The current process for screening and evaluating complaints against judges provides transparency and accountability for the judicial system and anything that might tamp down on those values would not be helpful, Coggiola said. Her office screens complaints against judges and conducts investigations where warranted.
South Carolina Press Association executive director Bill Rogers echoed Coggiola’s sentiments.
“People have the right to criticize judges,” Rogers said. “People do get emotional about judges, and they should have their say without risk of being fined.”
Moreover, Rogers said, in a landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Times versus Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court set a high constitutional standard in freedom of speech when it ruled that Americans don’t have to be 100 percent right when they make statements about public officials.
Rogers noted that as written, the bill says that officials would have to prove a citizen acted “wilfully” when he or she filed a groundless complaint to criticize a judge.
A citizen who filed a complaint against a judge would probably win a court battle because it’s so hard to prove a groundless complaint was filed wilfully, Rogers said. But that citizen would still have to go to the trouble and expense of hiring a lawyer to defend himself in court, Rogers said.
Under the bill, hundreds of South Carolinians could be subject to criminal or civil charges if they made a complaint against a judge later determined to be groundless. In each of the past three fiscal years, more than 280 complaints have been filed by citizens against the state’s judges and magistrates. More that 80 percent of those complaints are dismissed for one reason or another, according to state judicial records.
Brenda Bryant, a citizen who has been outspoken in her complaints against a judge, said a law that criminalizes a person’s criticism of a judge is blatently unjust.
“I’ve been so outspoken I will probably be their first test case,” Bryant said. “And I’m going to be hauled into court for criticizing a judge – and then sentenced to prison by another judge? Do you think that’s fair?”
Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a co-sponsor of the broad ethics bill that contains the language about groundless judicial complaints, said Thursday he did not insert the language at issue and, in any case, he didn’t think the bill’s provisions criminalizing citizens’ complaints against a judge would be retained.