I was pleased to weigh in this week on the proposed Pennsylvania legislation that would shift partisan elections for its state supreme court from a statewide ballot to a regional one. (More on the proposal here and here.) As the Spotlight PA article suggests, my concern is not with creating geographic districts, but rather with the potentially explosive mix of districts and partisan races. That combination seems to me to especially invite special interest and dark money, similar to the notorious 2004 supreme court election in Illinois.
Interestingly enough, South Carolina is also considering a move to expand and diversity the geographic perspective of its supreme court, which is chosen entirely by the legislature. We’ll continue to follow both proposals here.
South Carolina is one of only two states in which the legislature chooses the state’s judges. (Virginia is the other.) Often, the biggest concern about this form of selection is that legislators will choose their colleagues for the bench rather than seeking out the best possible candidates.
This week, however, a different issue arose in South Carolina’s judicial election process. In a contested race for the state court of appeals, private attorney Blake Hewitt was elected over Allison Renee Lee, a state trial judge with 20 years of experience. Hewitt was considered highly qualified for the position, but lacked any of Lee’s judicial experience. Hewitt is also white, and Lee is black.
After the election, several (but not all) black legislators briefly walked out of chambers in protest. Some suggested that the election was an act of racism, while others expressed concern about ensuring greater diversity on the state bench.
The White House recently announced that President Trump had nominated Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum to a seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Quattlebaum currently sits as a federal district judge in South Carolina–a position he has held for only two months.
There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to promote* Judge Quattlebaum to the appellate bench. But choosing a sitting district judge will once again create a vacancy in South Carolina, and that vacancy may take much longer to fill. Politics may well dictate filling appellate benches, especially in election years. But the trial courts, the place where the public most closely and commonly interacts with the judicial system, risk becoming the forgotten child. They deserve to filled as rapidly, and with as much care, as do appellate court vacancies.
* Many on the federal district bench would quibble with this term: the trial judges are the real judges! I use it here only in the sense that the Fourth Circuit is higher in the federal hierarchy.
For the second time in two days, a story on the severe shortage of court reporters in a state court system — this time in South Carolina. In influx of retirements, brought on by changes to the state retirement program, has led to a significant shortage of stenographers in courts across the state. The court system has launched an audio reporting program to compensate for the shortage, but as I discussed yesterday, audio recording is inferior in many ways to a live stenographer.
This is one of those stories that makes you wince:
Courthouse officials are using a weekend arrest in a bomb threat case to warn others not to make the same mistake.
Spartanburg County [South Carolina] Clerk of Court Hope Blackley said people sometimes will attempt to get out of their court hearings by calling in bomb threats to the courthouse, forcing the building to evacuate and shut down operations.
Such actions add to the burden on an already strained judicial system and can inconvenience hundreds of other people who have rearranged their schedules to accommodate a court appearance.
“It’s a costly, logistical nightmare first and foremost, and taxpayer dollars are being wasted,” Blackley said. “The court docket is already backed up. We need every minute we can to have court be operable. It’s a huge injustice for folks who want and need their cases to be heard.”
The courthouse can be a difficult place for many people, and it is understandable why some would feel reluctant to enter that space After all, issues affecting personal liberty, property, and relationships are determined there on a daily basis. But that is no excuse for terrifying and disrupting the lives of hundreds of other people. My goodness.