Judge appeals decision that would remove her from bench

Ninth Circuit Family Court Judge F.P. "Charlie" Segars-Andrews is asking the S.C. Supreme Court to void a decision that would knock her off the bench next year.

Her attorneys filed the lawsuit Tuesday, a few days after the state's Judicial Merit Selection Commission found her unqualified to continue to serve.

If that ruling doesn't change, then the Legislature can't consider re-electing her to a new six-year term after her current term is up on June 30, 2010.

"There are serious issues of constitutional law involved in this case," her complaint says. "The fundamental issue involves far-reaching issues of protecting judicial independence."

The commission voted 7-3 to find Segars-Andrews unqualified because of her work in a Clarendon County divorce case in which the ex-husband had asked her to recuse herself because of her husband's ties to the attorney representing his ex-wife.

The commission'S 52-page decision also noted the judge was sending instant messages and signed a Valentine's Day card while hearing arguments about her possible conflict of interest in the case. However, she replied she was paying close attention and took detailed notes.

State Senate Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, who chaired the commission, voted against her. "You have to put yourselves in the shoes of John Q. Public, anybody in a similar set of circumstances," McConnell said Tuesday. "Do they reasonably see the image of an impartial court or do they have reason to believe the court is not impartial? ... The cardinal underpinning of our judicial system is it's got to appear impartial."

Segars-Andrews' lawsuit notes the commission's decision was based solely on one case of the many thousands of cases she has heard during her judicial career.

And it claims that it's illegal for state lawmakers to serve on the commission because of a state law barring dual office holding. Six of the 10 commissioners are lawmakers.

It also says the commission breached the separation of powers by leaning so heavily on an issue already addressed by the S.C. Court of Appeals and the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct.

"Nothing is more important in a free society than the independence of judges," the lawsuit concludes. "(Segars-Andrews' case) has judges around the state apprehensive about the atmosphere in this state's judicial system."

The commissioners who found her unqualified appeared to base their decision not only on her handling of the 2006 divorce case but also how she defended herself when she appeared before the commission in early November.

Commissioner Donald Sellers said everyone makes mistakes but added, "It is particularly disturbing to me ... that Judge Segars-Andrews refused to even acknowledge her mistake in handling the conflict issue in the Simpson case until after the Commission's hearing was concluded and the vote on her qualifications was cast."

Segars-Andrews reappeared before the commission earlier this month and apologized and acknowledged her mistake, but the commission's decision moved only from a 9-1 vote to a 7-3 vote.

USC law professor emeritus and commissioner John Freeman said Segars-Andrews erred by reversing course and ruling in the divorce case, but added, "In determining whether a judicial candidate is qualified, it has never been necessary for a judge to establish that he or she is perfect 24/7 in every single respect."

The judge is represented by Charleston attorneys Armand Derfner, Morris Rosen and former appellate judge and College of Charleston president Alex Sanders.

McConnell, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell also are named as co-defendants, along with the commission.

The Supreme Court first must decide whether to hear the case or whether it should be heard first in a lower court.

No other candidate had filed for the Family Court judgeship, so the commission's rejection of Segars-Andrews' qualifications will cause the process to begin anew early next year.