Crime & Courts

Upstate’s judge’s race raises judicial ethics question

An Upstate race for a state circuit court judge’s post has raised questions of judicial and legislative ethics about candidates or their family members making campaign contributions to state lawmakers.

In state judges’ races, the voters are the 170 state lawmakers, so whoever gives them contributions before they vote is a matter of public interest.

In the ongoing race for the state’s 7th Judicial Circuit judgeship, Patrick Knie, husband of judicial candidate Grace Knie, contributed $8,000 to 14 lawmakers last year, according to State Ethics Commission records. Donations ranged from $250 to $1,000.

While there is nothing illegal about those contributions – made in the first part of 2016 before Knie announced her candidacy for judge’s position – such contributions prompted one lawmaker to file a bill two weeks ago in an effort to limit such contributions. Specifically, the bill would require any lawmaker getting a contribution from judicial candidates or their family members in the 12 months before a judge’s election to recuse themselves from voting in that election.

“I just thought we as legislators need to avoid the appearance of any impropriety,” said Rep. John McCravy III, R-Greenwood, who served five years with the state Supreme Court lawyers’ disciplinary board in the 1990s. His bill has eight co-sponsors.

McCravy declined to comment on the race between Knie and her opponent, Magistrate James “Donnie” Willingham II. McCravy declined to say who he was voting for in that race. Lawmakers will vote at noon Wednesday.

Knie, 52, is an attorney with a wide variety of civil and criminal experience, including as a part-time prosecutor for the city of Spartanburg for 15 years.

Willingham, 48, was an assistant prosecutor from 1994-2007 in the 7th Circuit before becoming a magistrate in 2007. As a prosecutor, he had a varied load, including death penalty cases.

Efforts to reach Knie and Willingham were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Knie’s husband, Patrick Knie, answered questions about his 2016 contributions to lawmakers.

“I’ve been contributing to political candidates for at least 25 years,” he said, explaining that he knows many people in the political arena. “I get contacted on a fairly regular basis to contribute. I’m just for having good legislators and good government.”

The judgeship his wife is running for opened unexpectedly last summer, and all his contributions were made before then, Patrick Knie said. Records confirm that.

Running for judge “was a very hard decision for my wife to make,” Knie said. “She basically waited until the last minute to make a decision. She has a very active law practice. This would be a pay cut for her, but ever since college and law school, she has always had a desire for public service.”

John Crangle, longtime president of Common Cause of South Carolina, said Tuesday that McCravy’s bill would probably not be constitutional because curtailing campaign contributions would likely be a free speech violation. But, Crangle added, it might not look right to the public to have family members or judicial candidates themselves giving to lawmakers in the 12 months before an election.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states in which legislators select judges.

Lawmakers interviewed Tuesday differed on the bill.

Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, an attorney and former solicitor, is a co-sponsor of McCravy’s bill. “I think this bill transcends any particular race. The bottom-line goal is to maintain the integrity of the system.” Pope has received no money from Knie.

Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a retired SLED agent, isn't impressed with the bill . “You get contributions from a lot of people. If he hasn’t violated any law, I don’t know what the issue is. She’s the one who is running.” Tallon has not pledged his support to either Knie or Willingham.

Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, a circuit judge from 1992-2002, said he has known Patrick Knie many years as a good friend. When he was a lawyer, Clary said, he and Knie worked cases together and on the opposite sides. He knows Willingham, too, because Willingham was a law clerk for Clary when he was a judge.

“I don’t want to have anything that raises any question of impropriety,” Clary said, adding he would favor McCravy’s bill if it were expanded to include campaign contributions by candidates and their families in races for state boards and commissions also. Clary said he supports Knie. He received $1,000 last year from Patrick Knie.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she would have to study the bill before taking a position, but it seems like an affront to lawmakers.

“I’ve been in the business for 25 years, have gotten contributions from people who’ve I’ve supported, and some who I have not supported,” she said. “I reject the premise that because you receive campaign contributions, that locks you into a position.” She supports Knie because, Cobb-Hunter said, she is the best qualified. She received $1,000 last year from Patrick Knie.

Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a lawyer, said McCravy’s bill is worth studying, especially if the time limit of prohibited campaign contributions matches the time of the campaign.

As for the Knie-Willingham race, Smith said Patrick Knie’s contributions are part of a longtime pattern of political activity. And Grace Knie is exceptionally well qualified, Smith said.

“I’m supporting Grace Knie, and her husband has never contributed to me,” Smith said.

Sumter judge wins S.C. Supreme Court post

Judge George “Buck” James, 56, of Sumter, will become South Carolina’s newest Supreme Court justice.

James’ opponent, Judge Diane Goodstein, 61, of St. George, has dropped out of the race, according to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. Goodstein has been a judge 19 years.

Candidates for justice gather pledges of support from the state’s 170 lawmakers in the General Assembly. Goodstein’s dropping out before the vote, scheduled for noon Wednesday, is an acknowledgment that James, who has been a judge 11 years, had gathered a decided majority of firm commitments.

James will be elected by acclamation Wednesday in a joint session of the Legislature.

The court has five members. The vacancy was created by the elevation of justice Don Beatty to chief justice after the retirement of Costa Pleciones.