COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — A bipartisan group of South Carolina solicitors is advocating for immediate changes to the way judges are selected in the state. 

They are specifically pushing for the removal of lawyer-legislators from the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC). This panel is responsible for screening and narrowing down judicial candidates before sending their nominations to the rest of the General Assembly for approval. 

Monday morning, more than half of the state’s elected solicitors came together to send a letter addressed to House Speaker Murrell Smith (R-Sumter) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin (R-Horry). The prosecutors are urging them to immediately remove lawyer-legislators from the JMSC since they can appoint members.

The JMSC, consisting of 10 members, currently has six members who serve in the General Assembly. All six, according to their State House bios, are attorneys. The solicitors who signed the letter argue that these lawyer-legislators wield significant influence over the selection of judges in South Carolina, creating potential conflicts of interest. They propose replacing lawyer-legislators with non-lawyer legislators to ensure a more impartial and transparent selection process immediately.

Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor said, “These folks exert an enormous amount of influence over who becomes a judge in South Carolina. Now, the real problem is these people also practice in front of the same judges that they select.”

Solicitor Brackett said this situation can give rise to the perception, if not the reality, of undue influence in the judicial system. The solicitors point to cases where House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D-Richland), a lawyer-legislator on the JMSC, represented clients whose sentences were reduced with secret orders after cooperating with authorities in other cases.

“It’s not just perception. It’s reality. It’s actually having an influence on the course of legal events. And that’s not right,” Brackett said.

Monday afternoon, Rep. Rutherford pushed backed on the letter and said he has not had any member of a solicitor’s office or an elected solicitor, allege that he’s done anything improper.

In response to their concerns, Rutherford said, “If they’re going to ask for reform, they need to cite examples. They need to tell the truth rather than simply being mad at me because I am a lawyer who is able to do these things that they don’t like. That’s winning. I cannot apologize for that.”

Rutherford defended his position, highlighting that the JMSC assesses minimum qualifications and does not play favorites he said. He emphasized that the committee’s primary goal is to ensure the state has the best judges possible and that removing lawyer-legislators may not necessarily lead to a better selection process.

As of Monday afternoon, the Speaker’s office has not commented on the solicitors’ letter. Earlier this month, Speaker Smith established an ad-hoc committee to examine judicial reform issues. This panel has been tasked with delivering recommendations for the rest of the House by next February.

South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature elects its judges.

You can read the full letter below