South Carolina is one of only two states (Virginia is the other) where judges are chosen by the legislature alone. In the case of South Carolina, this applies to the state’s top three courts (Supreme, Court of Appeals, Circuit) and one of the five lower courts (Family). In 1997 a “Judicial Merit Selection Commission” made up mostly (6/10) of legislators was created to recommend to the legislature names to fill vacancies. In recent years the practice of legislative-election has come under criticism and the first batch of bills prefiled in the South Carolina Senate for the 2015 sessions reflects some of that criticism.
No more legislators-turned-judges
SB 1 and SB 74 all seek out broad ethics reforms, including campaign contribution reforms. One element in both bills would prohibit a legislator from being considered for a judgeship within two years of their leaving office; currently a legislator must be out of the General Assembly for at least one year before being considered. SB 104 goes even further and extends the time limit to 20 years.
No more “pledged” legislators
Another practice that has been developed over the years has been “pledging” where a legislator even before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission has had a chance to operate and make their recommendation effectively comes out in favor of a particular candidate. SB 1 and SB 74 would prohibit pledging; SB 247 would specifically required a delay of seven legislative days after the Commission’s report before candidates could ask or legislators could give their pledged support.
Outright ending legislative elections
A third batch of changes would simply end the practice of legislative appointment. SB 111 (constitutional amendment) and SB 112 would end the practice legislative election, terminate the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, and instead allow for the Governor to appoint with the consent of the Senate individuals to the four courts currently using legislative elections.
All the bills have been forwarded onto the Senate Judiciary Committee.