COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Nine of South Carolina’s 16 elected prosecutors are asking to remove all legislators who are lawyers from a committee that decides which judicial candidates are put before the General Assembly for election.
All six of the lawmakers on the Judicial Merit Screening Commission are attorneys. Only one was mentioned by name in Monday’s letter: House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford. He responded with a news conference saying the prosecutors were making a power grab.
The prosecutors’ three-page letter cites several instances in which they said Rutherford influenced cases. It asks House and Senate leaders to replace attorneys on the commission with legislators who do not practice law.
“Quite frankly, it is shocking that Rep. Rutherford remains in such an important position, and that lawyer-legislators on JMSC have such influence over our judiciary,” the prosecutors wrote. “Trust us when we say that Rep. Rutherford’s tactics are not unique. Lawyer-legislators have undue influence over our judiciary.”
Five Republicans and four Democrats signed the letter.
Within hours, Rutherford, a Democrat, called a news conference to respond. He said the commission’s sole responsibility is to determine if lawyers are qualified to be judges. Members only limit which candidates are sent to the Legislature for consideration if more than three meet the requirements.
Rutherford challenged the prosecutors, who go by the title of solicitor in South Carolina, to make a formal ethics complaint against him specifying how he improperly influenced a judge.
“If they would like for the speaker of the House to take me off the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, they should at least show where I’ve done something wrong,” Rutherford said.
The dispute over how the state selects judges has grown contentious since the Legislature’s 2023 session ended in the spring. The complaints have been broad, ranging from concern about judges allowing violent, repeat offenders out on bail to complaints that not enough people of color have been elected.
The General Assembly elects judges after the Judicial Merit Selection Commission screens them. The commission conducts background checks, sends out questionnaires to determine temperament and judicial knowledge, and holds public hearings. If more than three candidates are qualified, the panel sends three names to the General Assembly.
Six of the 10 members of the commission are legislators. Some critics have suggested excluding lawmakers from the commission since they ultimately vote for judges.
Proposals have also been floated to have the governor nominate judicial candidates for the Legislature to vote on or to hold public elections for the judiciary branch.
Last week, Gov, Henry McMaster required magistrates, the lowest level of judges, to fill out a more detailed application for their jobs.
Republican House Speaker Murrell has created a special committee to review the entire judicial election system and has asked for recommendations next year.
About three dozen legislative judicial elections are set for 2024, from chief justice of the state Supreme Court all the way to the Family Court system.
Rutherford said the complaining solicitors want to diminish the influence of defense attorneys and simply want more judges likely to side with prosecutors.
“This is about power, ” he said.
The letter was written by 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett and signed by 8th Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, 10th Circuit Solicitor David Wagner and 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard, all Republicans. The Democratic signatories were 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, 3rd Circuit Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney, 4th Circuit Solicitor Will Rogers and 12th Circuit Solicitor Ed Clements.