In a race that was a nail-biter until the final minutes, John Few of Greenville edged out Bruce Williams of Columbia on Wednesday for a seat on the five-member S.C. Supreme Court.
The race had been a three-person contest up to an hour before the noon election. At that time, candidate Ralph “Tripp” Anderson, Chief Judge of the Administrative Law Court, bowed out, apparently convinced he didn’t have enough votes to win.
In the ensuing vote, Few won, 92-73. But that race was underscored by suspense because the 165 members of the House and Senate voted one after the other, calling out either “Few!” or “Williams!” Then, it took some five minutes for Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster to announce the formal total.
It was Few’s fourth try for the $131,000 top judicial post.
“It’s a big moment,” Few told reporters after his victory. “It has been my ambition since I became a judge to get to the Supreme Court.” But, putting matters in perspective, he said his biggest ambition “was to be a good father to my children.”
In 2007, Few, now 52, ran in a Supreme Court race that was eventually won by current Justice Don Beatty. Later in 2007, Few ran again for the Supreme Court in a race eventually won by current Justice John Kittredge. In 2009, Few ran again for a race that was won by current Justice Kaye Hearn.
Some lawmakers who voted for Few said they did so because they perceived he was more conservative than Williams, 59.
Both Few and Williams are judges on the S.C. Court of Appeals, where Few is chief judge. It was Williams’ third try for the high court.
The vote fills the vacancy left by December’s retirement of Chief Justice Jean Toal and the ascension of former Associate Justice Costa Pleicones to the chief justice position.
When McMaster announced the tally around 12:30 p.m., Few said he felt “excitement and relief and understanding the responsibility that comes with winning that seat.”
Shortly after the election, Anderson — who appeared in good spirits despite his bowing out — told a reporter this will not be his last race.
“I intend to run again,” Anderson said.
Williams declined comment.
In the Senate, 44 senators voted. In the House, 121 members voted.
South Carolina is one of two states whose Legislature elects judges. Candidates for judgeships and their supporters traditionally gather pledges, or commitments, in the weeks before the election. At some point, it usually becomes obvious that one candidate or the other has enough votes to win, and the losing candidate then bows out. The winner is then elected by unanimous consent.
This race has been unusual in that there were three candidates, and none of them appeared to have a majority going into the vote.
Many lawmakers said the choice between the three was especially difficult because each enjoys a good reputation and has numerous friends in the General Assembly.
State Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said he was an Anderson supporter and voted for Williams when Anderson dropped out.
“I was on the losing end of this race, but South Carolina is going to win no matter what. Both these guys (Williams and Few) are very capable,” Thurmond said.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who voted for Few, said that not only is Few “a true academician and intellectual,” he has known Few since they both were in college and were in the same University of South Carolina law school class. Moreover, Malloy said, Few has an important tie to Darlington County, since he is a first cousin of former Gov. David Beasley.
The Supreme Court’s five members, while elected by state lawmakers, can also be the last voice in telling lawmakers how to conduct their business in interpreting state laws and the state Constitution.
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 is known as the Abbeville case, which involves school funding inequalities.
There could be another suspenseful S.C. Supreme Court race in the offing this spring. Within a week or so, candidates will begin to declare for an upcoming vacancy in the chief justice position, now held by Pleicones. Pleicones, who turns 72 this year, must retire on Dec. 31.
By tradition, associate justice Don Beatty — the high court’s seniormost justice — would be expected to run unopposed for chief justice. But there is speculation among lawmakers that someone might oppose Beatty.
Newman beats Patterson
Jocelyn Newman, 38, a Columbia lawyer, beat Grady Patterson III for an at-large circuit judge seat on Wednesday.
State lawmakers elected Newman 85-80.
Newman was an assistant 5th circuit solicitor from 2005 to 2007. She graduated from Howard University Law School in 2004 and has run twice before for a state judgeship. On her judicial screening report, she listed her law firm as DeQuincey Newman law firm.
Newman is a daughter of state Judge Clifton Newman. Patterson is the son of former S.C. Treasurer the late Grady Patterson Jr.
Patterson, 63, is a Columbia lawyer at Patterson Law Offices and a former assistant attorney general. He also served in the Air National Guard from 1981 to 2001 before retiring as a brigadier general. He has run four times before for a state judge’s post. He is a 1979 graduate of University of South Carolina law school.
“I am grateful and humble,” Newman said. “I’m just thankful to all the members of the General Assembly for supporting me.”