This article was produced in partnership with The Post and Courier, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network
The trial that upended Sasha Darby’s life lasted just 11 minutes.
She had struck her roommate during a spat and found herself charged with assault. Standing alone at the defendant’s table that day, she tried to argue that the attack was self-defense. But Magistrate Rebecca Adams cut her off.
“You did hit her?” the judge interjected. “We’re having this trial, why?”
“I’m not sure,” Darby replied, stumbling over her words. “I’m not really familiar with legal terms.”
The 26-year-old forklift driver couldn’t afford a lawyer, and Adams didn’t ask Darby if she wanted the court to appoint one. The ACLU would later say in a lawsuit that omission violated the Constitution. And by refusing to hear Darby out, the judge blocked her right to defend herself, court experts contend.
“I’m gonna find you guilty, by your own admission,” said Adams, a former law enforcement agent who has never practiced law.
Darby ended up with a criminal conviction and a $1,000 fine. When she couldn’t pay, she was later thrown in jail, ultimately losing her job and her home.
Welcome to the magistrate courts of South Carolina, where citizens often must fend for themselves before judges lacking formal training in the law and whose errors can result in punishing consequences for defendants.
These courtrooms, the busiest in the state, dispose of hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor criminal cases and civil disputes each year.
They are overseen by political appointees, selected through a process that often places connections over qualifications. It’s a system that’s unlike any other in the country, and one that has provided fertile ground for incompetence, corruption and other abuse, an investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica found.
Over the past two decades, magistrates have accepted bribes, stolen money, forced themselves on women and sprung their friends from jail. They’ve flubbed trials, trampled over constitutional protections and mishandled even the most basic elements of criminal cases.
Their ranks include a Greenville lawyer appointed to the bench after siphoning thousands of dollars from accounts he managed; a Jasper County magistrate once accused of forging a title to a Rolls Royce for a fellow judge; and a magistrate who once threatened to beat up a defendant who had questioned his veracity in court.
A Post and Courier-ProPublica review of cases from across South Carolina uncovered instances of serious judicial errors or misconduct in 30 of the state’s 46 counties.
State senators have near-total control over these judicial appointments. And they have stocked the courts with friends, political allies and legal novices while consistently turning aside efforts at reform. The system has remained virtually untouched for more than a century as the state’s criminal codes have grown increasingly complex.
“The system is extremely antiquated,” said Republican state Rep. Gary Clary, a former circuit judge from Clemson. “I’m shocked by it.”
“In the 21st century, we should be doing better in the way we administer justice,” he added.
Magistrates sit in judgment on cases involving petty thefts, drunken driving, domestic violence, assaults and disorderly conduct. They also issue arrest warrants, set bail, preside over trials and conduct preliminary hearings to assess if there is sufficient probable cause to support felony charges such as murder, rape and robbery.
Unlike most states, South Carolina doesn’t require its magistrates to have law degrees. Over the years, their numbers have included construction workers, insurance agents, pharmacists — even an underwear distributor. Once selected, they undergo fewer hours of mandated training than the Palmetto State requires of its barbers, masseuses and nail salon technicians.
To better understand this system, The Post and Courier and ProPublica examined thousands of state records and compiled profiles of all 319 South Carolina magistrates. A reporter also visited courtrooms and interviewed legal experts, lawyers, lawmakers and defendants. Among the findings:
Nearly three-quarters of the state’s magistrates lack a legal degree and couldn’t represent someone in a court of law.
A loophole in state law has allowed a quarter of South Carolina’s magistrates to remain on the bench after their terms expired, letting them escape the scrutiny of a reappointment process. One controversial magistrate continues to hold court two decades after her four-year term ended.
In 12 of the state’s 46 counties, magistrate appointments are decided by a single senator who can stock the courts with hand-picked candidates.
More than a dozen sitting magistrates have been disciplined for misconduct by the state’s judicial watchdog, but they aren’t required to disclose their offenses when seeking a new term. Even the governor, who is supposed to act as a check on nominees, is kept in the dark before signing off on their reappointments.
This has allowed judges who misapplied the law or abused their positions to slide through, no questions asked.
Consider Adams, the Lexington County magistrate who sent Darby to jail after she failed to pay her fine. The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit against the county, saying the practice of imprisoning indigent defendants is systemic there. The group accuses Adams in particular of depriving people of their right to counsel before jailing them. But the five senators who signed off on her reappointment this year said they were unaware of the case until a reporter informed them of it.
“I would have grave questions about that,” said state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat and a longtime trial lawyer who voted to give Adams another four-year term.
Adams noted the lawsuit in paperwork she sent to the governor but said she was named only because of the leadership position she held in the court. She didn’t mention that it was her courtroom actions in three cases — including Darby’s — that largely prompted the litigation.
Adams declined to be interviewed. Her lawyer said judicial canons prohibit her from commenting on the pending legal matter. In court papers, Lexington County denied that Adams violated anyone’s rights. She has never been sanctioned publicly by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which polices lawyers and judges in the state.
Flaws in the application process allowed others to bury past issues.
While seeking reappointment, Chester County Magistrate Angel Underwood didn’t disclose her suspension from the bench for handling cases involving the sheriff’s office run by her husband. Newberry Magistrate Gordon Johnson didn’t mention his suspension for brawling at a social gathering. Both judges declined comment.
Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, declined to be interviewed, but through a spokesman he acknowledged these and other issues during the appointment process. After inquiries from The Post and Courier, the governor’s office said it will now require magistrates to disclose all disciplinary offenses before their terms are approved.
Supporters of the current system insist magistrates perform a valuable service for the state, handling some 800,000 criminal and civil cases each year. That takes a hefty burden off the already overloaded dockets of South Carolina’s circuit courts, which handle felony crimes and larger civil claims. And with magistrate courtrooms positioned throughout the state, defendants usually have access to a speedy trial nearby.
“Without a magistrate court, the wheels of justice turn, but they turn slow,” said Judge Danny Singleton, head of the statewide association for magistrates and municipal court judges. “It would probably put us in lockdown mode.”
But critics worry that by having looser standards for magistrates, the state has created an uneven system of justice that often runs roughshod over constitutional protections, disproportionately affecting those least able to defend themselves.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, South Carolina’s top court official, declined to be interviewed for this story. But through a spokeswoman, he said the Supreme Court keeps a close watch on magistrates and their conduct.
The high court’s disciplinary office has reprimanded, suspended or removed nearly three dozen magistrates since 2005, records show. In addition, Beatty has publicly demanded that magistrates uphold the constitutional rights of the many indigent defendants who appear in their courtrooms.
Unfortunately, cases like Darby’s are “routine,” said Colette Tvedt, a Colorado attorney and former director of training at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
That group, along with the ACLU, studied South Carolina’s magistrate courts after a researcher raised concerns about the state’s compliance with constitutional protections.
“What I witnessed firsthand was beyond disturbing,” Tvedt said. “Sitting in these magistrate courtrooms, I watched lives being ruined with alarming regularity.”
Less Training Than a Barber
Magistrates are a vestige of America’s colonial past. Early settlers mirrored their system of justice on that of England, where rulers dispatched lay judges among their subjects to resolve various disputes.
These judges were largely chosen for their common sense, not their legal pedigree.
Over time, their jobs became more complex. Criminal codes grew as more offenses were added, and technology and science lent new opportunities to present and challenge evidence of crimes.
Magistrates soon found themselves assessing the validity of alcohol breath tests at traffic stops. And in felony cases, they preside over preliminary hearings, parsing whether sufficient probable cause exists to put someone on trial for murder.
Across the country, states grappled with whether common sense was still enough to qualify someone to sit in judgment on such cases.
In the 1970s, California jettisoned its misdemeanor courts after its state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for a person who isn’t a lawyer to jail someone. Around the same time, Florida consolidated its courts. The state also requires that all judges have a law license.
The long-term trend nationally points to more legal professionals presiding over lower courts, said Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts. So far, 28 states, including North Carolina and most of the Southeast, require a law degree for judges handling misdemeanor cases, according to data compiled by Raftery.
Harpootlian, the state senator and trial lawyer, is among those who contend that South Carolina would benefit from following this trend.
“If you went to the doctor’s office, there are procedures one of the assistants could handle,” he said. “But if it’s something that could result in permanent injury, you want a doctor.”
Not everyone is convinced. State Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican lawyer who runs a civil practice in Sumter, acknowledged the courts must ensure defendants are afforded their constitutional protections. But he said magistrates who aren’t lawyers have proven capable of doing their jobs.
“A law degree is not a prerequisite to being a good judge,” he said.
Some states have kept judges who aren’t lawyers on the bench but reined in their power. Among South Carolina’s neighbors, Georgia, for instance, doesn’t allow its magistrates to preside over jury trials. The state also recently passed a law requiring that municipal court judges, who handle minor criminal matters, have a law license.
South Carolina has adopted more modest changes. As part of a push for overall reforms to the state’s judiciary in the late 1990s, lawmakers increased educational requirements for magistrates. They now must have a four-year college degree in addition to a high school diploma.
Those who aren't lawyers must observe five civil and five criminal hearings, including two jury trials in the state's circuit courts.
They must also complete a hands-on training course, which totals 57 1/2 hours. By comparison, police officers who often appear before magistrates must complete a 12-week training academy. South Carolina is also stricter on its barbers: their school mandates 1,500 hours.
Another key prerequisite is that magistrates pass a competency exam.
These tests require a sixth-grade reading level and knowledge of “basic mathematics, how to tell time, days of the week,” according to a court administrator’s memo.
A reporter took and passed the online tests. They took less than an hour to complete.
One 12-minute multiple-choice test had questions including, “What is the smallest number?” and “What is the earliest date?”
Some magistrates require multiple attempts to pass, but exactly how many is unclear. Court officials denied The Post and Courier’s request for those records, claiming confidentiality protections that are offered to judges. These protections extend beyond what other state employees receive under South Carolina’s open records law.
The newspaper was able to obtain archived letters documenting test results for 31 sitting magistrates. Among that sampling, three required multiple attempts. Separately, the Independent Voice newspaper reported that another four magistrates — nearly half the bench in Chester and Fairfield counties — also took the tests multiple times.
I Didn’t Know Any Better
A lack of acumen has manifested itself in magistrate courtrooms again and again.
To fill a magistrate opening in Dorchester County in 2009, former Republican state Sen. Michael Rose selected Arthur Bryngelson, a construction worker who chaired the county GOP.
With no legal experience to draw from, Bryngelson handled an estimated 3,000 civil and criminal cases a year for almost three years.
Then he learned he wasn’t cut out for the job.
While attending a class on judicial ethics laws, Bryngelson realized he had already violated these canons in a previous case. He hadn’t known it was wrong to lower a defendant’s bail to $10 and then pay it himself.
He turned himself in, and officials from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel discovered he had mishandled basic elements of several other trials. In one matter, Bryngelson rejected a request for a restraining order against a police officer, saying it would have a “serious effect on the officer’s career,” investigators wrote in the judge’s disciplinary file.
Court officials suspended him, and he later resigned.
Bryngelson could not be reached for comment. But in 2013, he told South Carolina Lawyers Weekly that his actions were not malicious.
“I did not mean to violate any standard. It was a lack of education that led me to it,” he said.
“I didn’t know any better.”
Clemon Stocker also lacked legal training when he became a Richland County magistrate in the 1990s. A barber who ran a barbecue business, he was appointed by his longtime friend, Democratic state Sen. Darrell Jackson, who insisted he could learn on the job.
In 2001, one of Stocker’s relatives, Willie Earl Reese, landed in jail after he allegedly pistol-whipped a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife. Despite Reese’s history of assault and domestic violence, Stocker convinced a fellow magistrate to set a low bail for him.
Reese posted bond the same day. Five days after his release, he shot and killed his wife, Teresa Reese. He later pleaded guilty to murder.
Jackson reappointed Stocker in 2003. Two years later, the judge admitted to misconduct in the Reese case and several other matters, prompting a 30-day suspension from the disciplinary office.
Jackson said he was unaware of Stocker’s actions in the Reese case when he reappointed him. In fact, he said he first learned of the issue from The Post and Courier. But he still defends Stocker’s character, calling him “one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with.”
Stocker retired in 2007, and he has recently fallen ill, according to Jackson. A woman at Stocker’s home in Hopkins said he declined to be interviewed.
The case still haunts Cora Joyner, Teresa Reese’s 70-year-old mother. Joyner found her daughter shot in the head on the front lawn that night in 2001. A framed portrait of Teresa still sits in a room she built over the spot where her daughter died.
Joyner didn’t realize that Stocker had helped spring her daughter’s killer from jail until a reporter told her the story.
“I won’t be able to do anything to him,” Joyner said. “But I know God will work it out.”
Traffic Tickets, Then 57 Days in Jail
The missteps of Bryngelson and Stocker account for just a small fraction of misconduct attributed to South Carolina’s magistrates. Others have been accused of flouting some of their most basic duties in the courtroom.
Between 2014 and 2015, a team of observers from the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers arrived unannounced to watch proceedings in South Carolina’s local courts. They set out, in part, to ensure that magistrates were upholding constitutional protections, such as guaranteeing that people accused of misdemeanor crimes had access to an attorney.
Observers reported that these magistrates blocked people’s right to counsel and shuttled unwitting defendants through an assembly line of guilty pleas.
It was a precursor to a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU in June 2017, accusing Lexington County magistrates of trampling on the constitutional rights of indigent defendants.
The suit pointed to people like Twanda “Shinda” Brown, who was jailed for 57 days in 2016 when she couldn’t afford to pay $100 a month toward two traffic ticket fines. And like Darby, Brown was placed behind bars by Adams, who was appointed to the bench in 2003.
Brown was 40 years old and a single mother of seven children. She lived in federal subsidized housing in Columbia and worked at Burger King to cover her bills.
She also didn’t have a driver’s license and had several previous traffic offenses on her record. In an April 12, 2016, hearing, Brown tried explaining her situation to Adams, but the judge cut her off in an exchange captured by courtroom microphones.
“Anybody ever put you in jail?” asked Adams, referring to her previous traffic offenses.
"Oh God, no -- I've got seven kids," Brown said.
“Oh God — you’ve gotta quit breaking the law,” Adams replied.
“I don’t care if you have 17 children,” the judge later added. “I don’t care if you have to get five jobs to pay my tickets off.”
Robert Boruchowitz, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, reviewed court audio and documents from Brown’s case.
He questioned why Adams did not explain Brown’s rights to counsel, nor make it clear if Brown was waiving those rights. A court form asked if Brown wanted to apply for a court-appointed lawyer, but only if she paid a $40 fee.
Then, Adams rejected Brown’s right to have a hearing over her ability to pay fines, which scholars pointed to as a key protection for all indigent defendants.
“I’m not having another hearing,” Adams told Brown during the proceeding. “If you miss a payment, normally I send a letter to people and say: ‘What’s going on? Come to court and talk to me.’ You miss a payment, I’m sending this officer straight to arrest you, and you’re going to do 90 days in jail.”
Eventually, that’s exactly what Adams did, after Brown fell behind with her payments. Brown said she was waiting on paychecks from her fast food job and had to miss work to care for a son with a broken jaw.
Brown said she wanted to explain all this to Adams, “but I was so afraid of her.”
Adams issued a bench warrant on Jan. 12, 2017, and deputies arrested Brown at her home a month later. Brown sent her youngest son to take out the trash so he wouldn’t see her in handcuffs.
“I was shocked,” Brown said in an interview. “But there wasn’t too much I could do about it, because she was the judge.”
Shortly after the ACLU filed its lawsuit, South Carolina’s chief justice sent a scolding memo to the state’s magistrates.
“It has continually come to my attention that defendants, who are neither represented by counsel nor have waived counsel, are being sentenced to imprisonment,” Beatty wrote in the September 2017 memo. “This is a clear violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and numerous opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The following March he distributed a checklist for judges to follow when handling cases where defendants without a lawyer face jail time. But a courts spokeswoman acknowledged there’s little way of knowing if magistrates have abided.
Court administrators “cannot realistically track compliance with each and every order that is issued,” said Ginny Jones, the spokeswoman.
Loopholes and Little Scrutiny
Beatty and others have pushed to bring a more professional approach to the lower courts, one rooted in the bedrock principles of the law. But their ability to effect change at the magistrate level is limited, as senators retain broad powers to stock the bench with whomever they choose.
South Carolina actually leaves it to the governor to select magistrates with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
But in practice, the system works much differently, said former Gov. Jim Hodges, who served as the state’s chief executive from 1999 to 2003. Early in his term, he learned he was expected to defer to the Senate or risk the chamber thwarting his legislative priorities, he said.
“It was pretty clear that despite what the law says, the governor had very little say over it,” Hodges said.
The governor’s office conducts criminal background checks on magistrate candidates and signs off on appointments, but they are confirmed in the Senate in voice votes. Unlike the state’s circuit judges, magistrates face no public screening or questions about their applications.
Magistrate applications from the governor’s office require candidates to divulge if they have been disciplined by the State Ethics Commission, even though the agency doesn’t cover judges. The form asks nothing about the agency that does receive complaints against judges and lawyers, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. That means the governor won’t learn about such actions unless the applicant volunteers the information.
When Newberry County Magistrate Gordon Johnson came up for reappointment this year, he made no mention of the 45-day suspension he’d received from the disciplinary office in 2016.
Johnson lunged out of his seat and attacked a man, head-butting his foe and attempting to gouge his eyes, witnesses told police. The scuffle occurred at a meeting of the local cotillion club, which promotes good manners. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division investigated the incident, but Johnson was not charged.
Johnson refused to discuss the incident when reached by phone, cutting off a reporter in midsentence.
“Did you not hear what I just said?” Johnson said. “For the third time, no comment. No comment on anything in my life.”
The state senator who appointed him, Republican Ronnie Cromer, said he knew about the suspension but had no qualms about reappointing Johnson, a family friend for decades.
“What he did was wrong,” Cromer said. “He had a perfect record before then. His work was exemplary.”
In Greenville, George K. Lyall was appointed to his first term last year. His application touts more than a decade of experience as a prosecutor. Not mentioned: the suspension of his law license after he was caught stealing from accounts he managed in the 1990s.
Lyall siphoned $49,000 from a family trust and $47,500 from a real estate partnership, using the money to pay taxes and personal expenses, according to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
He noted on his magistrate’s application that he had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor breach of trust charge in the 1990s, but he offered no details about the episode or his hiatus from the law. Lyall, who returned to practicing law in 2005, said he didn’t share that information because the ethics question on the application didn’t require it.
“I think I answered the question as written,” Lyall said, adding that he shared more specifics about the incident with Greenville senators. “I wasn’t trying to sneak my way into any position.”
Lyall was nominated by William Timmons, a former state senator now serving in Congress. Timmons, a lifelong family friend of Lyall’s, said he was aware of Lyall’s past but didn’t see it as a barrier to his selection. “Even with that, you’re not going to find somebody with more experience in the courtroom,” Timmons said.
Some sitting magistrates have sidestepped scrutiny from the governor’s office by avoiding the reappointment process altogether. State law allows magistrates to remain on the bench after their terms expire if no successor has been chosen.
A quarter of the state’s magistrates — 81 judges — are currently in this “holdover” status.
Senators said there are legitimate explanations for skipping reappointments, like turnover within delegations or delays in processing paperwork. The process can also draw out when senators within large delegations disagree on candidates.
“It’s kind of like herding cats,” said state Sen. George “Chip” Campsen, a Republican in the eight-member Charleston delegation.
But several senators interviewed said there’s no excuse for a holdover lasting years.
Jasper County Magistrate Donna Lynah has presided in this capacity for two decades, longer than any other magistrate in the state. Her last reappointment came in 1998, according to the state’s magistrate archives.
In 2000, she was arrested on charges that she forged the title to a Rolls Royce for another magistrate.
The incident prompted a nine-month suspension from the disciplinary office, though the criminal charge was later dropped.
Lynah was disciplined again in 2008, receiving a 90-day suspension for allowing an assistant to handle court checking accounts, a violation of judicial policies. The assistant was caught stealing $15,000 from the accounts and sentenced to three years in prison.
Lynah declined to speak with a reporter about the incidents. “That was long ago,” she said. “I’m just trying to finish out my time and retire.”
Democratic state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, who took office in 2015, is the point person for magistrate appointments in Jasper County. She said she has seen no reason to initiate the formal reappointment process, since no one has complained to her about the judge.
Bright Matthews and Tom Davis, the county’s other senator, said they were unaware of Lynah’s prior criminal charge.
Reforms Face Opposition
Some state senators have pushed to fill more magistrate openings with seasoned lawyers in an effort to increase the legal pedigree of the bench.
But there are practical challenges. For one, some rural counties have very few lawyers to fill those slots. McCormick County, population 9,600, has just three licensed attorneys but two magistrate seats.
In many areas, lawyers would also likely face substantial pay cuts to join the bench. The median salary for full-time magistrates is roughly $77,000, according to data the judges self report to court administration.
But pay is calculated by county, based on population. In some rural areas, the judges make less than $50,000.
“You’re not going to get lawyers at $40,000 a year,” Harpootlian, the state senator and trial lawyer, said. “You’re going to have to increase funding, statewide, and then provide them offices and provide them staff.”
When state Rep. Eddie Tallon, a Spartanburg Republican, proposed reforms in 2016, he ran into another issue: senators resistant to changing the system they control.
Tallon’s bill called for magistrates to be screened by the same panel that reviews the state’s felony and appellate court judges. That process requires far more detailed disclosures from candidates and subjects them to public hearings.
The bill passed the House easily. But the proposal didn’t make it to the Senate floor. “They are happy with the way magistrates are selected and see no reason to change it,” Tallon said.
Hodges, the former governor, said South Carolina should follow its laws and allow governors to select magistrates, as it’s done in many other states.
“If you’re going to be accountable for the performance of people who are theoretically appointed by you, you ought to have a greater say in who sits in those seats,” he said. “It probably improves quality. It certainly improves accountability.”
Another proposal last year called for magistrates to have law licenses only in counties with populations above 75,000, which would cover 18 of the state’s 46 counties. That bill didn’t make it to the House floor.
It would have ensured that in many places, only a magistrate with specialized training in the law would handle a case like Sasha Darby’s in Lexington County, in which she was accused of striking her roommate during a fight.
Boruchowitz, the Seattle law professor, reviewed court audio and documents from Darby’s case. He said Adams violated her rights by refusing to allow Darby to defend herself.
“The judge was ignoring the possibility that Ms. Darby had a self-defense defense, and did not allow her to explore whether she had been in fear of [her roommate] who apparently had raised her hands and ‘gotten into her face,’” Boruchowitz said, citing the court audio.
Adams convicted Darby and ordered her to pay $150 a month toward a $1,000 fine. Darby knew she couldn’t afford the payments and soon fell behind.
Adams issued a bench warrant on Dec. 8, 2016, and deputies picked up Darby when she was newly pregnant. She spent three weeks in jail.
When she got out, she learned that she had lost her job and been evicted. Homeless and four months pregnant, she convinced a friend to let her stay on their couch.
One night, feeling a jolt in her belly, she rushed to the bathroom. She miscarried in the tub.
“I always go back,” she said through tears. “Had I not been jailed, had I gotten the better care that I needed … I’ve always had that wonder.”