A watchdog citizens’ group has sent Chief Justice Jean Toal a letter asking that she and Associate Justice Costa Pleicones consider recusing themselves if they are called upon to decide civil or criminal questions involving House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
“We make this request in view of the fact that Speaker Harrell took an active role in trying to influence the votes of House members in the recent election of candidates for the office of chief justice of the Supreme Court,” wrote John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina.
Earlier this year, Harrell successfully campaigned to corral House votes for Toal in a bitterly fought race for a 10-year term in a chief justice election.
On Feb. 5, Toal squeaked out a victory over Pleicones, winning 95-74, and observers believe Harrell’s backing was one of the elements that allowed Toal to beat Pleicones.
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If just 11 lawmakers of 170 House and Senate lawmakers had changed their votes, Toal would have lost her powerful post, in which she presides over the $60-million-a-year judicial empire of state judges, court records and a vast Internet-connected court records system.
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In South Carolina, the Legislature elects state judges and the five state Supreme Court justices.
“Both Toal and Pleicones would be perceived as having some kind of bias — either for or against Harrell,” Crangle said in his letter. “The potential bias of Toal is more obvious.”
Crangle made it clear he was not accusing either Toal or Pleicones of being prejudiced in a matter involving Harrell — merely that because of public perceptions, the justices should consider recusing themselves.
Recusals by sitting justices happen on occasion, and other judges are appointed to fill their seats.
Crangle made his request in a February letter, about a month after Attorney General Alan Wilson announced he would seek a state grand jury investigation of potential criminal ethics violations concerning Harrell.
On March 5, Supreme Court clerk Dan Sherouse wrote Crangle, acknowledging receipt of the letter and saying, “Unless and until such a matter does come before this Court or the chief justice, it would be premature for either Chief Justice Toal or Justice Pleicones to consider recusing themselves.”