The husband of an S.C. state representative ousted a 16-year incumbent in a contentious judge’s race Wednesday.
More than two dozen lawmakers, unhappy with the contest, abstained from voting.
In one of 22 judicial seats that state lawmakers filled, the General Assembly voted 87-50 to elect Bill Funderburk, husband of state Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, to a seat on the state’s Administrative Law Court.
Funderburk, who beat incumbent Carolyn Matthews of Columbia, said after the race that he was happy the contest was behind him, adding it had become about “something more than whether Judge Matthews or I should serve.”
The competing campaigns for the candidates painted Funderburk as taking advantage of his wife’s legislative position and Matthews as having a poor work ethic, a charge she disputed, saying she had decided more cases than any other judge on the administrative court in three of the past four years.
Rep. Funderburk did not vote in her husband’s race. She left the chamber during the vote so she was out of sight or earshot of any legislator, she said.
No rule bars a lawmaker’s spouse from running for judge in South Carolina. But, with reformers already questioning the Legislature’s role in electing judges as threatening judicial independence, some lawmakers were unhappy with the perception of a conflict of interest.
The Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which screens judicial candidates, found both Funderburk and Matthews qualified.
However, 26 members of the General Assembly who were present did not cast a vote in the election, which came after lawmakers defeated avoided a vote on removing both candidates and starting over.
After rumbling this week that some lawmakers wanted a fresh slate of candidates, state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, moved Wednesday to throw out Funderburk and Matthews, and restart the judicial screening process.
But a vote on starting over never happened.
Instead, Martin’s motion was tabled despite more than half of senators — including President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; GOP Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; and Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee — backing the Spartanburg Republican in calling for a vote on keeping or rejecting the two candidates.
Sens. Tom Young, R-Aiken, and Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, were among the senators who wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over. When that effort failed, they voted for Matthews.
Matthews narrowly won the vote among senators. However, Funderburk overwhelmingly won the vote of members of the House, where his wife is a member.
“I wasn’t comfortable with voting for Mr. Funderburk with the nepotism question floating around the State House,” Young said, adding lawmakers are talking about ways to address that issue in future judicial elections.
Funderburk is not the first S.C. judge to win a seat on the bench while married to a legislator, Thurmond noted.
While state law bars a lawmaker from voting for a spouse who is running for judge, it does not clearly bar a lawmaker from lobbying for a spouse, Thurmond said.
“Anytime you have family members — you have a close relationship with them, maybe you have a financial interest — you need to do more than just not participate in the vote,” Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said, adding he assumed Rep. Funderburk did not encourage support for her husband.
Administrative Law Court judges are paid $107,377 a year, except for the chief judge, who is paid $120,799.
Matthews, who brought friends and family to the State House for Wednesday’s vote, said she was “stunned” and “totally shocked” by the effort to throw her and Funderburk out of the race, and by Funderburk’s margin of victory.
“I did not realize it was going to be so difficult to overcome the fact that a legislator's husband was running against me,” she said, adding she has “served the state with distinction for 16 years.”
Of the 22 seats on the bench that lawmakers filled Wednesday, only one other race was competitive. In that race, Tanya Gee of Columbia beat Jerome Askins of Johnsonville for an at-large Circuit Court seat.