Cindi Ross Scoppe

Have our lawmakers lost interest in judicial integrity?

Members of the SC Senate and the House applaud a judicial election — in this case John Kittredge to the state Supreme Court. This spring, the Legislature’s merit selection panel refused to examine allegations that a judge violated the no-pledge law, and the Legislature elected him anyway.
Members of the SC Senate and the House applaud a judicial election — in this case John Kittredge to the state Supreme Court. This spring, the Legislature’s merit selection panel refused to examine allegations that a judge violated the no-pledge law, and the Legislature elected him anyway.

CIRCUIT JUDGE Rodney Peeples had worked for more than a decade to secure pledges from legislators and had more than enough to win an open seat on the state Supreme Court — a fairly typical situation at the time — when an Orangeburg attorney raised explosive allegations about the judge’s ethical fitness.

Tom Bryant told the Legislature’s judicial screening committee that Judge Peeples had lied under oath and abused his position as a judge in order to enrich his daughters, who were named as beneficiaries in a will over which he had been named executor.

The screening committee deadlocked, 4-4, on whether this disqualified Judge Peeples from sitting on the Supreme Court. Still, it looked for a time as if the Legislature would elect him anyway, because, well, a pledge is a pledge. But then the screening committee took the audacious step of asking the Supreme Court whether an ethics investigation had been launched against Judge Peeples; the next day, he withdrew from the race.

A year later, the Supreme Court issued a public reprimand, saying Judge Peeples had engaged in the practice of law, which judges aren’t supposed to do; prepared a will naming his daughters beneficiaries without making a full disclosure of the potential conflicts of interest; and lent the prestige of his judicial office to advance the interests of another person, by trying to collect money for a former client. And legislators breathed a sigh of relief that he had saved them the embarrassment of electing him to the high court.

The 1987 saga marked a crucial turning point in South Carolina — the start of a long journey toward the Legislature considering something other than political connections when it selects the people who hold the very power of life and death. Our judiciary is not perfect, and our judicial selection system most certainly is not, but it is greatly improved, as a result of two reforms that grew out of the Peeples near-election.

One empowered a reconstituted screening commission to restrict the field of candidates for any judgeship to the three it found most qualified, assuming it found three qualified. Politics plays into which three get nominated, but all three meet a certain basic level of quality that is higher than it used to be.

The other reform prohibited judicial candidates from asking for legislators’ votes until after they pass screening.

Last month, the Legislature elected former state Rep. James Lockemy as chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals despite unresolved questions about whether he illegally asked legislators for their votes more than two months before the screening panel found him qualified.

It could turn out that that the allegations were scurrilous rumors, spread by supporters of the other Court of Appeals judge seeking the seat, former state Rep. Paula Thomas. Or it could turn out that they were true, in which case Judge Lockemy not only would have violated the no-pledge law but also would have committed perjury when he testified before the panel that he had not violated that law.

As screening commission Chairman Sen. Larry Martin told me, it’s the sort of thing the commission needs to do its best to sort out.

But when commissioners received the complaints a week before the scheduled election, they declined to ask the Legislature to delay the vote to allow for that investigation. And when Mr. Martin took the request to the General Assembly himself, legislators also declined.

Since Judge Thomas by then had dropped out, the Legislature’s only options were to elect Judge Lockemy or reject him. A motion was made to reject him, but it was tabled 115-41, and the Legislature voted 121-20 to elect him.

House Republican Leader Bruce Banister, who serves as vice chairman of the screening commission, argued that the commission didn’t need to be chasing down rumors, which are more than plentiful around the State House. And that’s a fair observation. He argued that the complaints reeked of politics: The illegal conduct was said to have occurred in March, but the complaints weren’t made until late May, when it was clear that Judge Lockemy had more votes than Judge Thomas. That’s a fair observation as well.

But none of that diminishes the seriousness of the claims. Imagine if police refused to investigate crimes that weren’t reported immediately. Imagine if prosecutors refused to consider testimony from witnesses who might have ulterior motives. Gracious — our criminal justice system would implode.

When legislators are willing to put their names on affidavits alleging that a judge violated state law, it seems to me that a body called the Judicial Merit Selection Commission has an obligation at least to ask some questions. And when the Legislature is told that the commission has not asked those questions, it seems to me that it ought to refuse to hold an election until they are asked.

The fact that legislators didn’t do that suggests they don’t care about the rule of law, which is bad enough under normal circumstances but exponentially worse when the law in question concerns the integrity of our judges. It almost makes you wonder why we let the legislative branch of government elect the judicial branch.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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