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South Carolina lawmakers send judicial reform measure to governor

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(The Center Square) — South Carolina lawmakers have approved a version of a judicial reform measure following months of back-and-forth debate.

S. 1046, passed during this month’s special session, ostensibly increases transparency and accountability by changing how judges in the state are picked. It creates a new 12-member South Carolina Judicial Merit Selection Commission, increasing the panel from the previous 10-member group.

The Speaker of the House will appoint four members, including three House members, and the state Senate president and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee will appoint four combined members. The governor will also appoint four members.

“By reforming the Judicial Merit Selection Commission to allow more qualified applicants to come through among other necessary provisions, legislators are giving a voice to South Carolinians by representing their interests in our judicial selection process,” Americans for Prosperity – South Carolina Director of Public Affairs Candace Carroll said in a statement. “We are thrilled to see S.1046 head to Governor McMaster to ensure six qualified applicants are eligible to be considered for judgeships, thus creating a more transparent and effective process to govern our great state.”

Members of the commission will serve for two-year terms and are barred from serving more than two consecutive terms. Members of the House or Senate whose General Assembly tenures end will also stop serving on the commission, and members appointed to fill unexpired terms can still serve two full terms.

Commission members are not eligible for nomination and appointment as judges or justices of the state court system or administrative law court while serving on the commission or for one year after their term ends. Additionally, members will not receive compensation except those set by law for travel, board and lodging expenses incurred in performing commission duties.

Palmetto Promise Institute Policy Analyst Felicity Ropp told The Center Square the organization was pleased to see lawmakers agree on “such a transformative piece of legislation.”

“Palmetto Promise Institute first called for judicial reform in our January 2021 report Judging the Judges, and we are pleased to see so many of our recommendations included in the final legislation,” Ropp said in an email. “These include adding gubernatorial appointments to the JMSC, rotating member terms so no candidate appears before the same JMSC panel twice, raising the cap on the number of candidates advanced to the General Assembly, and livestreaming JMSC meetings.

“All these measures go a long way toward improving transparency and accountability in how South Carolina selects judges,” Ropp added. “Next year, we hope to see the General Assembly bring this momentum to magistrate reform, a key piece that unfortunately did not make it into the final agreement.”

The measure heads to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who previously said the state needed judicial reform.

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