7News Original Reporting: Upstate citizens group judging our judges

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(WSPA) – It’s one of the most powerful jobs in the state, but before anyone becomes a South Carolina judge they’re judged by a group of private citizens you’ve likely never heard of.

Right now, there are official citizens committes with the power to make or break any judge’s career.

They use confidential surveys and private interviews to decide whether someone is the right fit for a black robe.

Sometimes that means even a sitting judge can be found “unqualified” for the job, not because they’re unfair, inexperienced or unfamiliar with the law, but because someone the judge can never identify simply doesn’t like them.

In just one week, a Spartanburg County judge will hear cases of domestic abuse and neglect.

There will be five adoptions and a half dozen divorces, a total of 33 hearings on a pretty typical week of family court.

Judge Kelly Pope-Black has been hearing these kinds of cases for the last six years.

State lawmakers elected her to the bench in 2013, and now, the same legislative commission says she’s “not qualified” for the job.

And only a select group of private citizens knows the real reason why.

“We start off by checking the references they give us, we talk to the bailiffs, we talk to the clerk of court, any person in the administrative arena who will talk to us and answer our questions,” Nancy Jo Thomason, chair of Upstate Citizens Committee on Judicial Qualifications.

Thomason has been part of the Upstate Citizens Committee since its inception and now serves as chairman.

Unlike most states, South Carolina still gives lawmakers complete control over who sits on the bench.

Only one other state does it that way.

In 1996, voters amended the constitution to add an extra layer of oversight and protect the process from any backroom deals. The amendment created a Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

That commission determines who’s qualified by tasking Citizen Committees in five geographic regions to gather information from a candidate’s co-workers and colleagues.

It’s unusual for the state to determine a sitting judge is not qualified, but it has happened before.

In most cases, it’s similar to what happened to judge Pope-Black. 

A judge is found to be ethical, knowledgeable and mentally stable, but there are concerns about more subjective measures such as temperament.

“Regardless of which of those positions a candidate is looking to fill, we want to make sure they’ve got good temperament because it’s not just the temperament of dealing with the litigants, it’s the temperament of dealing with other judges with the clerks and the staff and the solicitors office and the public defenders office,” Thomason said. 

In their report on Pope-Black, the Upstate Citizens Committee wrote that witness interviews showed she was “dictatorial,” “disrespectful,” and “arrogant,” which is why they found the sitting Family Court judge “unqualified” for another term.

The same committee made a similar finding about another Family Court candidate, Rame Campbell, a former deputy solicitor, who is perhaps best known as one of the lawyers for Townville Elementary shooter Jessee Osborne.

The Citizens Committee found Campbell “unqualified” because they said his “professional colleagus” reported that he “has difficulty working well with others,” and that he, himself, “displayed an uneasiness during the interview process.”

Rep. Tommy Stringer said that process is so secretive that he wants the House Oversight Committee to investigate.

“Anything that the Citizens Committee has done after the cycle, is done with the records, are destroyed,” Stringer said. 

Those Citizens Committee reports would later form the basis for the state to reject the candidacy of both Campbell and Pope-Black.

In both cases, the State Bar Association found them qualified in every criteria, including termperament.

“We’ve had instances of candidates being found qualified in one cycle and found not qualified in another, and then come back up again qualified and it’s how can these things change from cycle to cycle,” Stringer said. 

“Isn’t it possible that someone is a really good, fair, knowledgable judge, but people at the courthouse just don’t like him or her? I guess. I think the idea of fairness and temperament go hand-in-hand,” Thomason said. 

Fair or not, Pope-Black remains a Family Court judge until her term expires next month. More than six months after the state found her “not qualified.”

“You would think if she’s not qualified she should step down now,” Stringer said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Pope-Black declined to talk to us on camera, but she’s posted about the state’s decision on Facebook.

In her post on Facebook, Pope-Black said in part, “The screening process is based upon anonymous comments and we, as judges, do not have the opportunity to know the situation related to the comment, nor do we have an opportunity to respond to our accusers because they are anonymous.”

In that same statement, she also implied how her gender played a role in the Citizen Committee decision.

Pope-Black will remain a Family Court judge in Spartanburg County for another month.

BEYOND ORIGINAL REPORTING:

Ever wonder why we cover a story and how long it takes for our reporters to gather all of the information? On Thursday night after his story aired, Gordon answered those questions and more during our Beyond Original Reporting Facebook Live. Hear what Gordon had to say about this story below:

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