COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A special committee has been created in the South Carolina House to study how the state chooses its judges.
The eight Republicans and five Democrats are a mix of lawyers are others being asked to hold public hearings and then debate a bill that can be introduced by the start of February, a few weeks into the 2024 General Assembly session, House Speaker Murrell Smith said in a letter.
The committee follows a 2023 election that left the South Carolina Supreme Court as the only high court in the U.S. with all men. Black lawmakers have said for years there are not enough African Americans on the bench.
In South Carolina, the Legislature elects judges, and Smith said while the committee can discuss the merits of other systems like where judges are appointed by the governor or popularly elected, he doesn’t think there is support to change the state constitution to a different method.
Instead, the Republican speaker wants the committee to focus on the Judicial Merit Screening Commission, a panel of 10 people appointed by lawmakers to determine if candidates for judge are qualified and then whittle them down to three choices for the General Assembly.
Some critics of the process said the commission shouldn’t just be chosen by lawmakers or limited to three choices to give people outside the Legislature more control over that part of the process.
Smith also wants the committee to review how lawmakers can help judges do their jobs better by cutting down a backlog of cases or assuring suspects awaiting trial who are dangers to the community aren’t released while awaiting trial.
The special committee also is being asked to review the lowest level of the state court system at the magistrate level. The House doesn’t have a hand in selecting those judges, which are nominated by senators.
Smith said he doesn’t want to disrupt how magistrates are selected, but does want the House to consider their qualifications, duties and jurisdiction.
The speaker said he thinks the South Carolina judicial system is strong and filled with good people and this isn’t about any particular decision or ruling.
“The inquiry I am asking you to take on is less about individual judges and more about the system for selecting them and holding them accountable,” Smith wrote.
The Republican House members on the committee are Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope and Reps. Weston Newton, William Bailey, Micah Caskey, Brandon Guffey, Robby Robbins, Anne Thayer and Chris Wooten. The Democratic House members are Reps. Justin Bamberg, Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Russell Ott, Ivory Thigpen and Spencer Wetmore.