This article was produced in partnership with The Post and Courier, which was a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in 2019.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gov. Henry McMaster is urging sweeping changes to the qualifications and oversight of South Carolina magistrates after a joint investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica exposed abuse and incompetence among the state’s front-line judges.
The governor pointed to that reporting in his annual State of the State address Wednesday, calling for what he described as needed reforms to fend off further corruption and misapplication of the law by the state’s cadre of more than 300 magistrates.
Under his plan, every magistrate would be required to be a practicing lawyer with a clean record. As the news organizations reported in 2019l, currently a large majority of these judges have never practiced law. McMaster also called on lawmakers to revamp their process for screening and approving candidates, who now need little more than the support of local politicians to sit in judgment on hundreds of thousands of criminal and civil cases each year.
“The first step in reform is transparency and accountability,” McMaster said. His recommendations, which may face an uphill battle in the state, amount to the most significant proposal to date for what advocates have said are long-needed changes to an antiquated system of justice, one that has remained virtually untouched for more than a century.
A 2019 series by The Post and Courier and ProPublica exposed how a flawed system of selection and oversight provided fertile ground for misconduct 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.
In addition, about three-quarters of the state’s magistrates have never practiced law, the investigation found. Their ranks have included construction workers, insurance agents and pharmacists. Before taking the bench, they are required to undergo fewer hours of training than the Palmetto State requires of its barbers and hair salon technicians.
In the wake of The Post and Courier and ProPublica’s reporting, some lawmakers moved quickly to propose a set of reforms. Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, is spearheading an effort that would mandate magistrates undergo more formal legal training and tighten the Legislature’s scrutiny around their appointments. On Wednesday, the governor insisted lawmakers should take the matter a step further, placing even stricter requirements on magistrates’ qualifications and appointments.
Still, in interviews several key lawmakers expressed doubts about passing ambitious reforms anytime soon, with this year’s legislative session dominated by the state’s recovery from a pandemic-wrecked economy.
And not everyone is convinced that South Carolina has widespread issues among its magistrates. Defenders of the current system contend that magistrates perform an essential function of the state’s justice system — clearing dockets of minor cases so that the state’s circuit judges have time to handle major felony and civil cases. They preside over cases involving petty thefts, drunken driving, domestic violence, assaults and disorderly conduct. They also issue arrest warrants, set bail and conduct preliminary hearings to assess if there is sufficient probable cause to support felony charges such as murder, rape and robbery. Supporters say that non-lawyer magistrates have proven themselves capable of performing these duties.
Judge Danny Singleton, president of the statewide association of magistrates and other local judges, didn’t return a message seeking comment Thursday.
Sen. Luke Rankin chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would consider any proposal before a floor vote. He said he has seen no set of “examples that show me that there’s a pattern of abuse.”
Rankin said no senator has broached the subject of magistrate reform with him since The Post and Courier and ProPublica published their investigation. When asked, Rankin said he had not read the series, and he asked a reporter to send it to him.
“It may be far more of an issue than I’m aware of,” Rankin, a Republican, said.
Some of Rankin’s colleagues have already proposed reforms. That includes Davis and Republican Sen. Tom Young, who has proposed legislation to close a loophole that allowed magistrates to hide prior ethical offenses while applying for new terms.
A dozen sitting judges who have been disciplined for misconduct by the state’s judicial watchdog skated through their last appointment, no questions asked, The Post and Courier and ProPublica found.
McMaster, a former state attorney general, has largely been quiet on the subject of magistrate reform. Presented with the findings of the news organizations’ investigation in 2019, McMaster declined to be interviewed.
But he has acknowledged the governor’s limited role in their selections. While the state Constitution places appointments in the governor’s hands, in practice the executive office acts as nothing more than a rubber stamp.
State senators hold broad authority to hand-pick candidates, and selections are almost never questioned outside of local delegations.
McMaster, during Wednesday’s remarks, urged a process with more scrutiny, one that would require candidates to be screened in legislative hearings. That would place magistrate appointments in line with the state’s circuit judges, who handle all felony cases and are required to be seasoned attorneys.
Sen. Shane Massey, the Republican state Senate majority leader, said he welcomed the governor’s call for reforms. But he and others cautioned that the proposals raise significant questions about how they’d be implemented.
For one, the state would likely need to raise magistrate salaries to attract practicing attorneys who otherwise might have to swallow a drastic pay cut to take the bench.
And some rural counties have very few lawyers to fill those positions. Tiny McCormick County, part of Massey’s district, has just three licensed attorneys, and two magistrate seats.
“Requiring lawyers — that works great in Charleston,” Massey said. “It doesn’t work so well in McCormick.”
Through a spokesman, McMaster on Thursday urged lawmakers to study the issue rather than use the challenges “as an excuse to not do what needs to be done.”
“It’s perfectly reasonable for South Carolinians to expect greater accountability and transparency in the selection of judges they may appear before,” spokesman Brian Symmes said.
Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican and the top budget writer in the state House of Representatives, said lawmakers should follow the governor’s lead.
“Nobody’s really been willing to take on and improve the magistrate system,” Smith said. “Now, the governor has made that call.”
Smith, also an attorney, co-sponsored legislation in 2018 that would have mandated magistrates have law licenses only in counties with populations above 75,000, which would cover 18 of the state’s 46 counties.
The bill didn’t make it to the House floor.