Tight three-way race so far for SC Supreme Court justice seat

(Left to right) John Few, Ralph King “Tripp” Anderson III, Harris Bruce Williams
(Left to right) John Few, Ralph King “Tripp” Anderson III, Harris Bruce Williams

A race in the S.C. General Assembly for the vacant seat on the state Supreme Court has turned into a quiet battle among three judges as they and their supporters try to round up the 85-vote majority needed to win.

“I don’t think anybody has it in the bag,” said Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg. “I haven’t committed yet.”

Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said: “I know each candidate personally, and it’s a very difficult decision for me. I don’t think we have a bad choice between the three.”

Whoever wins the race will take one of five seats on the court whose members, while elected by state lawmakers, can also be the last voice in telling lawmakers how to conduct their business. The most tense example of that was the court’s ruling last year that gave lawmakers a deadline for making progress in addressing rural schools’ concerns after the schools’ victory in what’s known as the Abbeville case, which involves school funding inequalities.

The election is on Feb. 3 at noon, when the 169 senators and representatives will gather in the House of Representatives. A winning candidate must have 85 votes – one-half of the 169 senators and representatives plus one – to win. A senator’s vote counts as much as a representative’s.

Candidates for the $131,000 associate justice job have all been screened and qualified by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. They are:

▪ Ralph King “Tripp” Anderson III, 57, a Columbia resident who is currently chief judge of the six-judge S.C. Administrative Law Court.

▪  John Few, 52, a Greenville resident and head of the nine-judge S.C. Court of Appeals.

▪  Harris Bruce Williams, 59, a Columbia resident and a current judge on the appeals court.

The race for associate justice is being carried on largely out of public view, with no advertisements or speeches. Instead, each candidate calls on legislators and has lieutenants in the House and Senate who seek firm pledges of support and keep a running tally of votes. Traditionally, if one candidate gets a clear majority of pledges, others will bow out so that, in the end, only one candidate will be left. That candidate is then elected by unanimous vote.

Although all candidates have cleared screening by the Judicial Standards Commission and are qualified to be a justice, various subtle differences have surfaced among the candidates and are being discussed by lawmakers.

For example, supporters of Few cite his intellect; supporters of Anderson, his humanity and temperament; supporters of Williams, his decency and 20-year voluntary outreach to help Richland County offenders with low-level, non-violent drug offenses re-enter society as productive members.

A recent report by the S.C. Bar judicial qualifications committee found that Williams and Anderson were “well-qualified” in the categories of ethical fitness, character, professional academic ability, reputation, experience and judicial temperament.

But the same committee awarded Few the slightly lower rating of “qualified” for ethical fitness, character, reputation, experience and judicial temperament. It gave Few a rating of “well-qualified” for professional academic ability.

Conservative lawmakers who favor limited government also have been trying to assess which of the three candidates is least likely to avoid “judicial overreach” – shorthand for a Supreme Court opinion that might interpret a law in a way that some lawmakers believe should have been left to the General Assembly.

Earlier this month, for example, some conservative state senators harshly criticized a 3-2 Supreme Court decision that interpreted a state law in such a way as to leave the state’s 281 car dealers vulnerable to class action lawsuits over closing fees on vehicle costs.

Other considerations lawmakers are weighing go to matters such as how close a friend they are with a qualified candidate or where in the state a candidate comes from.

State Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, is backing Anderson because not only is he highly qualified, he said, but also Anderson is a native of Florence, and Florence is the heart of what is known as the Pee Dee, a cluster of swampy tobacco and cotton growing counties that stretch from Marlboro to Williams’ Marion.

“Judge Anderson is a Pee Dee native, and I’ve known him for a long time, and the Pee Dee doesn’t have any representation on the Supreme Court,” Williams said. Although current Associate Justice Kaye Hearn is from Horry County, which adjoins Marion County, Horry is not really considered part of the Pee Dee, Williams said.

Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is a strong supporter of Williams and is counting votes in the 45-member state Senate. Normally, the Senate has 46 members, but a vacancy was created by the recent death of Sen. Billy O’Dell, R-Abbeville.

“As of Thursday, I had 10 for Few, 10 for Williams and three for Anderson,” said Courson, a close longtime friend of Williams who lives next door to him in Columbia. “The rest are undecided.”

Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, is a Few supporter who is helping Few get votes in the House and keeping tabs on who is pledged to whom.

“It’s early. There are a lot of uncommitted votes who are looking at the screening report and the Bar report,” Bannister said. “A lot of members want to have personal meetings with the candidates, so they don’t commit until they’ve met all three.”

Asked about Few’s Bar screening report being somewhat less glowing than that of Anderson and Williams, Bannister – a member of the screening commission – said he observed the candidate selection process closely and noted that no one spoke publicly in a negative fashion about any of the three candidates. There were some anonymous negative comments about candidates but none of them panned out to be a concern, Bannister said.

“They are all qualified guys; they are very smart,” Bannister said. “John (Few) has probably a superior grasp of the law and the way the judiciary works.”

At this stage, Bannister said, “Anyone who is forecasting that one of the candidates might drop out – it’s sort of like forecasting the weather. It may look that way now, but 30 minutes from now, it’ll look completely different.”

Courson said lawmakers who are attorneys get “very nervous” in deciding how to vote in judicial races.

Asked if attorney-lawmakers are worried they might cast a vote for a judicial candidate that wins and then have to face the losing candidate as a sitting judge, Courson said, “I don’t know about that, but attorneys sure want to be on the winning side.”

Kent Williams said, “It’s a close race. Only the good Lord knows who will win.”