Rankin Defends Current Process for Selecting SC Judges

By Paul Gable

Horry County Senator Luke Rankin spoke for approximately one hour on the SC Senate floor last week defending the current process for electing judges in the state.

Rankin, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and current Vice Chairman of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), spoke during debate on the Senate floor about possible changes to the way in which judges are elected in South Carolina.

A major point of contention is that lawyer/legislators in the General Assembly have too much influence in the process. A change currently being considered is to not allow attorneys to serve on the JMSC, a point Rankin ridiculed during his speech. Candidates who pass screening are then voted on by a joint session of the General Assembly or the county legislative delegation, depending on the judicial position. South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states in the nation in which the legislatures play the primary roles in electing judges.

A member of JMSC since 2017, Rankin, several times during his speech, likened the current process of electing judges to “kicking the tires of a car” when considering purchase of a new vehicle. Rankin spoke of the several “touch points” during the process which include inputs from appointed citizens committee, the SC Bar review and what is known as the ballot box technique of collecting anonymous comments about judicial candidates, all of which are available to the JMSC when it considers judicial candidates. Candidates are reported out of the JMSC as qualified or not qualified for consideration for the judicial position they are seeking.

Rankin generally confined his comments about the process and the JMSC’s part in it to the case of the reelection of Judge Dan Hall, a judge who had been the subject of a formal complaint by an elected circuit solicitor for being too lenient on defendants and their attorneys. Hall was reported out well qualified by JMSC for his reelection after the complaint and Rankin spent approximately half of his hour long speech defending that decision.

Several times, Rankin questioned who were the loudest voices in calling for judicial reform. He referred to two solicitors and Attorney General Wilson and inferred maybe there were thoughts of seeking higher office associated with the calls for judicial reform. He questioned whether politics was involved in the call for judicial reform and said – who knows?

However, curious decisions by the JMSC have been the subject of media coverage through the years. Fifteenth Circuit Court Judge Steven John, Rankin’s home district, was reported out as qualified four times by the JMSC from 2001-2015, during his 20 year tenure as a judge. However, after making a controversial ruling on the unconstitutionality of civil forfeiture of assets related to drug busts, John was found not-qualified by a 9-0 vote of the JMSC in 2020. This begs the question how can a judge be qualified and elected four times over a 20-year period suddenly be found not qualified by unanimous vote? Was politics involved – who knows?

Grand Strand Daily has previously reported on the curious case of former Rep. Alan Clemmons who, five weeks after winning the Republican primary for nomination to another term in the SC House, suddenly resigned from the House due to added work pressure from his law practice. A posting for an opening in the Master in Equity judgeship in Horry County was published, then retracted several days later by the JMSC. The opening was later reposted the following year by the JMSC and Clemmons applied as a candidate for the position. According to current law, members of the General Assembly must be out of office for a year before being eligible to apply for a judgeship. Clemmons is now the Master in Equity in Horry County. Was politics involved – who knows?

Rankin also spoke of a forum held in Myrtle Beach in December 2022 in which two solicitors and an elected sheriff from the upstate spoke of their concerns about the influence of lawyer/legislators in the selection of judges. Rankin said he was accused at that forum of being corrupt and opposing the fentanyl bill in the Senate. Rankin seemed offended that solicitors and a sheriff from outside Horry County conducted the forum in his home area. In response to a planted question from another senator, Rankin said his solicitor and sheriff were invited, but they did not stay and did not embrace or agree with what was being said.

I attended that forum while Rankin did not. I do not recall any criticism of Rankin with respect to the fentanyl bill, but I may not remember. However, I remember both the local solicitor and sheriff in attendance and did not notice either leaving before the end of the forum. Whether they agreed or disagreed with what was said is their business, but they attended as public servants to hear what was being said about changing the judicial selection process.

Rankin may have missed the loudest voices in the state calling for judicial reform. In the recent 2024 Republican Presidential Primary voting, voters were also asked three informational advisory questions on the ballot.

One of those questions read, “Should South Carolina adopt reforms to increase the independence and accountability of our judiciary by improving transparency and reducing conflicts of interest in the process of reviewing judicial qualifications and electing judges?”

The citizens spoke with 634,345 voting Yes to the question and 61,446 voting No. A whopping 91.17 percent of voters indicated a need for reforms in the electing of judges. That is the loudest voice for reforms.

While reform is being considered in Columbia, it is time to involve the voters directly in the process. Voters already choose county Probate Judges on the ballot. They should be allowed to be part of the “tire kicking” process by electing all judges in the state.

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