Magistrate Judges Took Bribes, Stole Money and Mishandled Cases. South Carolina Officials Now Want Reform.

The South Carolina statehouse in Columbia.

The South Carolina statehouse in Columbia. Shutterstock

 

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South Carolina lawmakers are eyeing reforms to strengthen oversight of magistrate judges after ProPublica and The Post and Courier found some had been appointed and reappointed despite ethical and professional lapses.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — When the South Carolina legislature reconvenes next week, lawmakers say a priority will be ramping up their scrutiny of local magistrate judges, many of whom are among the state’s busiest but least qualified jurists.

A 2019 series by The Post and Courier and ProPublica exposed how a flawed system of selection and oversight provided fertile ground for incompetence and corruption on the bench.

Hand-picked by politicians, some magistrates were found to have accepted bribes, stolen money, flubbed trials, trampled over constitutional protections and mishandled even the most basic elements of criminal cases.

And though they handle hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor and civil cases every year, roughly three-quarters of the state’s magistrates have never practiced law in their life, the investigation found.

Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican, is asking his colleagues in the upper chamber this legislative session to bolster the legal qualifications for magistrates and add a layer of scrutiny to their appointments. Another new proposal would do away with loopholes that have allowed magistrates to shield ethical offenses or preside for years despite expired terms.

Those pieces of proposed legislation, part of more than a half-dozen pre-filed bills targeting magistrate reforms, received ringing endorsements in interviews with key members of the 23-person state Senate Judiciary Committee, which would review any proposal before a floor vote.

“That’s good stuff,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, a Republican and senior committee member who said he’d been eyeing changes to the state’s magistrate appointment process for years. “I’d be for making that a priority.”

Defenders of the current system contend magistrates perform an essential function of the state’s justice system — clearing dockets of minor cases so that the state’s circuit judges have the time to handle major felony and civil cases. And, supporters say, non-lawyer magistrates have proven themselves capable of performing their duties.

“A law degree is not a prerequisite to being a good judge,” Rep. Murrell Smith told The Post and Courier and ProPublica during the course of their investigation.

Still, Smith, a key Republican state House leader, has also indicated that he and his colleagues in the chamber would welcome reforms that would bolster the legal acumen of the state’s magistrates.

Even though the state Constitution places magistrate appointments in the governor’s hands, in practice the executive office acts mostly as a rubber stamp. State senators hold broad authority to hand-pick candidates, and selections are almost never questioned before they are confirmed in voice votes in the upper chamber.

The process amounts to virtually zero scrutiny for the roughly 300 magistrates around the state, The Post and Courier and ProPublica found.

Davis pointed to that reporting as a direct catalyst for his and the other latest proposals for reform.

“Individuals are contacting representatives and senators — that makes its way into pre-filed bills,” Davis said. “It’s an indication of the public’s raised awareness.”

The investigation found that a flaw in the application process removed a requirement for magistrates to disclose if they have been disciplined for misconduct by the state’s judicial watchdog. A dozen sitting judges with prior ethics offenses skated through their last reappointment, no questions asked, the investigation found.

A bill from Sen. Tom Young, a Republican, aims to close that loophole. His proposal would mandate that the full Senate be informed of a magistrate’s prior ethical offenses before confirmation votes. As it stands, unless magistrates volunteer the information, even local delegation members are often left in the dark. Young, also a Judiciary Committee member, told The Post and Courier that more detailed disclosures are essential to selecting qualified jurists.

His bill also would eliminate the practice of keeping magistrates on the bench for years despite expired terms. The Post and Courier and ProPublica found that roughly a quarter of South Carolina’s magistrates preside in this “holdover” status. That has allowed the judges to escape the reappointment process and avoid any questions whatsoever about their service.

Magistrates are the busiest judges in the state. They sit in judgment on cases involving petty thefts, drunken driving, domestic violence, assaults and disorderly conduct. They also issue arrest warrants, set bail, preside over trials and conduct preliminary hearings to assess if there is sufficient probable cause to support felony charges such as murder, rape and robbery.

Yet the news organizations’ investigation found that most magistrates are not lawyers and could not represent someone in a court of law — yet they preside over them.

Davis has stressed that the state must bolster its legal qualifications for all magistrates. Though he has not proposed details, he would at least increase their mandatory legal training from the current minimum of 57 1/2 hours.

By comparison, South Carolina is stricter with its barbers: Their training school mandates 1,500 hours.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government.

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