Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What you need to know about S.C.’s bizarre race for Supreme Court chief justice

Shame of robes

Posted by Corey Hutchins on Tue, Jan 28, 2014 at 1:22 PM

click to enlarge S.C. Supreme Court building in downtown Columbia - FLICKR.COM/ENSIGNBEEDRIL
  • flickr.com/ensignbeedril
  • S.C. Supreme Court building in downtown Columbia

The process by which South Carolina selects the chief justice of the state Supreme Court has been called a game of thrones that involves “pure, raw politics, where relationships are tested and arms twisted.” In other words, it’s not unlike other elections in the Palmetto State. But South Carolina is unique in that it’s one of only two states — Virginia is the other — where lawmakers elect the chief justice. That means those who want this job must ingratiate themselves with legislators, make deals, lobby for votes and shore up support among a group of people who fund their court budget and write the laws they interpret in rulings.

That process has been on full display this week as current Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice Costa Pleicones have been spending a lot of time in the Statehouse and on the phone seeking commitments for the Feb. 5 vote.

Here are some points to consider:

It wasn’t supposed to be like this

Toal initially said she wasn’t going to run for re-election. Had she not, Pleicones would have traditionally risen to the position without an election. Toal decided to run again, and so Pleicones said he would, too. The two are longtime friends. So it came as shock to legal observers that there’s a race at all.

They’re both old, and that matters

Judges are supposed to retire at age 72. The chief’s job is a 10-year term. Toal is 70 and Pleicones is 69. So whoever wins, they’ll both retire within two years. That means South Carolina will have a new chief justice around 2016. The real story is who that might be.

Who might want the job in two years?

It’s no secret Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell of Charleston has had his eyes on the position. So watch how the College of Charleston move plays out. Another name that’s floating around is John Few, 50, an Upstate judge who has served as current chief justice of the S.C. Court of Appeals for the past three years. Few declined to comment on any designs he might have on the chief justice position when it next opens, when asked by Statehouse Report. But, he said, “I’m definitely interested in running for associate justice when a seat comes open. That’s a goal of mine going back to when I first became a judge.” There’s also Associate Justice Don Beatty, who would be next in line of secession.

Bobby Harrell is involved in the election

Charleston Rep. Bobby Harrell is hard at work trying to get commitments for Toal. As House Speaker, Harrell holds considerable power over his minions in the House. He puts them on committees they want, he oversees staff salaries and expenditures. He appoints conference committee members — and that panel can kill or pass a law. Harrell is also currently under a criminal investigation by a state Grand Jury to find out whether he abused his power or broke any criminal or ethics laws. Harrell could one day wind up in front of a state judge depending on how the grand jury investigation pans out. The chief justice oversees state judges and the state court system.

Are Toal and Pleicones that much different?

Both Toal and Pleicones came up in the same social circles in the leafy neighborhoods of Columbia, and there might not be much of a stark difference between them ideologically. Toal has been described as political, Pleicones as someone who often dissents from the majority. Toal says she wants to stay on as chief so she can finish up projects that began under her administration. Pleicones says it’s always good to have fresh leadership.

The state Supreme Court hasn’t been following the law on timely court decisions — would that change under new leadership?

According to state law, justices on the South Carolina Supreme Court have 60 days to file their decisions from the time a term ends after hearing a case. But ask any lawyer who’s had a case before the High Court if the turn-of-the-century law is always followed, and they’ll likely laugh in your face.

The issue of timely court decisions came up plenty in a screening process when Toal and Pleicones were interviewed by lawmakers. Pleicones has said he believes the court could improve its processing time. You can read much more about that issue from the City Paper here.

Whoever wins, would they actually have to retire at 72?

Whether the winner must retire at 72 might be debatable. Could they just stay on the court, but lose retirement benefits? Toal or Pleicones entertained the question, but declined to give their opinion on it because it’s possible that the issue could one day come before them on the court. They both have told media they would retire at 72. But what if lawmakers were to pass a law this year changing the retirement rules? “There’s no attempt to parse words. I will retire in December 2015,” Toal told the P&C. “ If I retired I would be off the court.”

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