Days before a historic race for chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, the two candidates – incumbent Chief Justice Jean Toal and challenger Associate Justice Costa Pleicones – have voluntarily made public more information about their personal financial situations, including details about their assets and income sources.
It’s an unprecedented disclosure in an unprecedented election. Not within memory has an associate justice challenged an incumbent chief justice. Never have candidates for any high state judgeship made public so much personal financial information. Ordinarily, they disclose this information in confidence to a 10-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission.
The disclosures are an important way to show the justices are free of possible ethical, legal or financial entanglements that could compromise their decisions on the bench. Politicians are more accustomed to such releases; for the justices, because of its scope, it’s believed to be a first.
The 170 members of the S.C. General Assembly will vote between the two candidates at noon Wednesday.
The candidates’ financial information, each in somewhat different form for the tax year 2012, was released last week, first by Pleicones, then by Toal.
Pleicones also had various mainstream stock, bond and mutual fund holdings valued at more than $890,000. A separate account contains cash and securities worth $119,000. The holdings include items such as 1,100 shares of General Electric stock worth some $26,000, 153 iShares TIPS valued at about $28,650 and 914 shares of BB&T worth about $30,000.
Also, Toal said she has a 401(k) and 457 retirement plan worth about $200,000 and composed of various mainstream mutual funds such as the Dodge & Cox stock fund. “No withdrawals are being made,” she wrote.
She also said, “Neither Bill nor I own any publicly traded stocks.” Her husband owns a 401(k) and a Merrill Lynch account, both managed by Merrill Lynch and both invested in mutual funds. Their values total about $548,000, she said.
Toal also wrote that she is one of five beneficiaries of her late mother and father’s estate trusts, the primary assets of which are real estate and the family sand-mining business. None of the assets have been distributed to her or her siblings, and they receive no income from those assets. “All income is being used to pay to the loan taken by the estate and trusts to pay estate taxes. These loans are current and when paid, the family assets will be distributed to myself and my siblings,” she wrote.
The financial disclosures were hailed by Greg Adams, a University of South Carolina School of Law ethics professor.
“This is a big step in the right direction,” Adams said. “Judges should release enough information to assure the public they are honest and impartial and they are not distracted by any conflict of interest.”
Adams said he hopes Toal and Pleicones are “setting a new standard, not just for judicial candidates, but for all judges, on an annual basis. This is the kind of information that should be available regularly and kept current.”
Judicial selection commission member Pete Strom, an attorney and a former U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, said more public disclosure by judicial candidates “would be appropriate.”
Federal judges already publicly disclose far more personal financial information than S.C. judges, Strom said.
In the current confidential financial screening process, Strom said, “What we look at from a financial standpoint is to determine whether someone is financially stable and whether they would be susceptible to a bribe because of their financial condition.”
Both Toal and Pleicones “more than met” the financial criteria, Strom said.
Down to the wire
Currently, judicial candidates do make public some financial information. But it is skimpy when compared to the kind of information just released by Pleicones and Toal.
In interviews, many of the 170 lawmakers, who will vote in a joint assembly, say they dread the vote for several reasons.
First, it will force them to choose between two respected jurists with whom many lawmakers have long-term friendships. Also, they wonder if the once-orderly successions on the Supreme Court – which usually have involved the next most-senior associate justice running unopposed for the chief’s spot – will now become an emotionally charged, politicized affair.
Toal and Pleicones are similar in their court opinions, lawyers say. They both grew up in Columbia and were members of the same USC law school class of 1968. Their relationship was once close, but the ongoing race has strained things, friends say.
As of Friday, neither candidate had a majority of “pledges” – a promise to vote – that would cause the other candidate to acknowledge defeat and drop out of the race.
Another reason the race is attracting attention is that Toal is something of a historic figure.
In January 1988, when Toal was elected to the Supreme Court as an associate justice, no woman had ever been elected to the Circuit Court, the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. (The day Toal was elected, the late Carol Connor was elected to the Circuit Court.) At the time, Toal was a member of the S.C. House.
Her nearly 14-year tenure as chief justice has been marked by her aggressive outreach to numerous legal and non-legal groups, innovations to make court proceedings more transparent to the public, including outreaches to students and teachers and overseeing a largely complete transition to move the court system from paper records to an Internet-based case management and filing system.
She also won funding for about a dozen additional judges’ posts, after explaining to the Legislature that businesses are less likely to come to a state that has a clogged, inefficient judicial system.
A citizens’ committee that reported to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission said, “Toal is a dynamo with huge intellect and a clear vision of the future for the S.C. court system. She is responsible for many innovations and has plans for many more.”
In its assessment of Pleicones, the citizens’ committee said he is “respected and even admired by his colleagues and the Bar. He combines a fine intellect with compassion for others and passion for his job ... eminently qualified to be Chief Justice ... and a credit to the S.C. judiciary.”
In statements to the commission, Pleicones said if he were elected “my first priority would be to complete, continue and complement most of the technological innovations begun by Chief Justice Toal.” He also stressed that “courtesy, candor and mutual respect” will be hallmarks of his tenure.
Pleicones’ credentials include stints as an attorney for Richland County government, a public defender, a private attorney and a Circuit Court judge from 1991 to 2000 before joining the Supreme Court. He also served in the U.S. Army Reserve, rising to the rank of colonel.
The impetus for the public disclosure came from The Nerve, the Internet-based investigative arm of the S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian-leaning Columbia think tank.
In recent weeks, a reporter from that organization had asked both Toal and Pleicones for the information. Both justices released the information to The Nerve and The State newspaper last week.
“I don’t think there’s been any move to hide that stuff; it’s just that nobody ever brought it up,” Pleicones told The State.
What’s at stake
The race is for a 10-year term, but neither Toal nor Pleicones will serve that long.
Each is nearing 72, the traditional retirement age. The year a justice turns 72, he or she usually serves until the end of that year.
That means if Toal – who is now 70 and who was born in August 1943 – wins, she has said she will retire as chief justice at the end of December 2015.
Toal, noting some lawmakers have questioned whether she might try to stay on as chief justice, told The State Friday, “I will retire at the end of 2015 – no ifs, ands or buts. Please make that clear. I don’t want there to be any doubt.”
Pleicones said that if elected, he will serve as chief justice until Dec. 31, 2016, the end of the year in which I will attain the age of 72.” His birthdate is Feb. 29, 1944.
If Pleicones doesn’t win, his current term expires in July 2016.
The chief justice not only is the presiding officer of the Supreme Court but also functions as the chief executive officer of the state’s $65 million-a-year court system and the discipline of people, including lawyers, who work in that system.
In recent weeks, both Toal and Pleicones, and their lieutenants in the Legislature, have been gathering pledges of support from lawmakers. Neither would disclose their vote count Friday.
“Let’s put it this way – I’m very pleased at this point,” Pleicones said.
Toal said, “I feel very encouraged and comfortable about it – extremely encouraged.”
No matter who wins, the public has already gained because of the financial disclosure, Adams said.
“This should become the norm for all state judges,” Adams said. “When people have their lives and fortunes at stake in court, it is important for them to know the judge on their case is impartial and doesn’t have any financial ties that might appear to jeopardize that independence.”