A growing number of Charleston lawyers and others across the state are wondering aloud whether a decision to end F.P. "Charlie" Segars-Andrews' career as a Family Court judge will erode the independence of the South Carolina judiciary.
The Judicial Merit Selection Commission has not made its final decision on her case, but it has voted, 7-3, to find Segars-Andrews unqualified to continue to serve.
The decision came after it looked in-depth at how she handled a Clarendon County divorce case.
The judge's supporters fear the commission's decision, if it stands, would set a bad precedent that would cause judges to shy away from difficult cases and discourage talented lawyers from offering to serve as a judge, a position that can result in a pay cut for them.
Retired Circuit Judge Gary Clary, who lives in Clemson and served 10 years on the bench, said he is disturbed that the commission is looking at a single case rather than considering Segars-Andrews' career in full.
"You can probably go look at any judge and find something you would not qualify them for," he said. "I think this sends a message to all judges that if you make a decision that results in a disgruntled litigant - and in every case you're going to have someone who is unhappy with the decision - then judges are not going to be independent."
"You're going to have judges looking over their shoulder, waving a finger making sure they know which way the wind is blowing and checking their bases," he said. "I would not be a judge under those circumstances."
Clary and Greenwood lawyer C. Rauch Wise shared similar concerns when Circuit Judge Kenneth Goode faced criticism because many thought two of his prison sentences were too lenient.
Goode retired last June. "If somebody doesn't stop it, it's going to repeat itself in the next year and the next year and the next year," Wise said. "And it's going to get worse to the point where a judge on any semi-controversial case will think, 'What will the Legislature think if I rule this way?'
"They did not take an oath to please the Legislature. They took an oath to enforce the Constitution."
Segars-Andrews has pleased the Legislature recently. In June 2008, the S.C. House unanimously passed a resolution praising Segars-Andrews for her work with Charleston County's Drug Court, saying she has "unique gifts and (a) compassionate, yet firm heart."
But last month, the Judicial Merit Selection Commission voted to find her unqualified. The decision came after they heard from a Clarendon County man who was upset that she did not recuse herself from his divorce case. Segars-Andrews' husband's law firm had shared in a large fee with one of the lawyers in that divorce case, and Segars-Andrews said that posed an appearance of a conflict. She later received an expert opinion saying there was no conflict, and the S.C. Court of Appeals and the state's Judicial Conduct Commission agreed, upholding her decision to rule in the case.
Natalie Bluestein, a Charleston lawyer who has tried to rally support for Segars-Andrews, said the issue is bigger than whether she remains on the bench.
"Every judge I know is terrified that this is going to happen to them. That means they're not going to be able to give us decisions in difficult cases," she said. "It's going to have a chilling effect."
Elizabeth Hills, a Mount Pleasant lawyer who has won and lost cases in Segars-Andrews' court, said she never has seen anything unethical about Segars-Andrews' rulings. "I hope something can be done to change this or no judge will be able to hear anything," she said. "If they saw a person 30 years ago, then everybody will be recusing themselves. It's ridiculous."
Joe Mendelsohn, a Charleston lawyer who has practiced before Segars-Andrews on many occasions, said he supports her. "She has not always ruled in my favor, but she's always been polite, knowledgeable and has great judicial temperament," he said. "I simply don't understand what's going on."
Others lament that the commission is not looking at the judge's other good work in drug court and with youths.
Charleston lawyer Joseph Cerato said Segars-Andrews has her phone number listed in the book and has made herself available after hours, including one night when his client got a tip that her ex-husband, who was $67,000 behind in child support, was back in Charleston. Cerato said the judge signed papers during the night that allowed authorities to ensure the man paid his debt before returning to his home in Australia.
"By Charlie making herself available to do that, justice happened," Cerato said.
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, who is the commission's chairman, has said the commission generally tries to ensure its screening process is neither a whitewash nor a witch hunt. The Legislature cannot consider electing judges who are found unqualified by the commission.
If its decision on Segars-Andrews stands, then her service will end when her term expires in June.
Commissioners don't comment publicly on their screening decision until their findings are written and finalized. The report on Segars-Andrews is due in mid-January, but there's a chance it could come out before Christmas.