Editorial Roundup: South Carolina

The Post and Courier. June 22, 2022.

Editorial: SC Supreme Court crackdown on problem judges should prompt Senate reforms

The S.C. Supreme Court is on a roll, and we hope people are paying attention.

We’re not referring to the court’s decision to sidestep the normal, lengthy administrative process to disbar disgraced attorney Alex Murdaugh, who by his own admission has violated numerous ethical requirements for lawyers. That’s hardly a difficult call at this point for a court that is appropriately interested in policing the practice of law in South Carolina.

We’re referring instead to the court’s third action in three months and fourth since October against a lower-court judge with clear conflicts of interest.

And in particular, we’re talking about what appears to be a proactive effort by the court, through its Office of Disciplinary Counsel, to identify problem judges before they become front-page exposes in The Post and Courier.

After the court issued a public reprimand against him last week for hearing cases involving deputies his wife supervised, retired Marion County Magistrate Daniel Barker II told reporter Avery Wilks that judicial investigators discovered his case as they reviewed how judges have been handling conflicts. He said the review began after the Supreme Court first suspended Chester County Magistrate Angel Underwood in 2016 for failing to recuse herself in more than 100 cases brought by the local sheriff’s department while her husband ran it. (The court had to suspend Judge Underwood again earlier this month.)

Of course, the court will neither confirm nor deny Judge Barker’s claim, but we can’t think of a good reason for him to make that up. If it’s true, it marks an important shift for a court that has never been nearly as aggressive about policing judges as lawyers who aren’t judges.

The court has always been willing to discipline magistrates and municipal judges but has taken a more hands-off approach to those presiding over Family and Circuit courts. And you’d expect those lower-level judges to run into more ethical problems since they don’t have to be lawyers and they aren’t vetted in the same way other judges are. Still, the court either has overlooked — or hast taken an inordinate amount of time to discipline — some judges who committed pretty clear violations, notably the municipal judge who admitted commingling money owed to others with her own money and then not using it as agreed to pay off back taxes.

So, we’re encouraged to see the court conducting what sounds like a systematic review of problems at least with magistrates. If it hasn’t already, we encourage it to expand that beyond magistrates, perhaps starting with municipal, probate and master-in-equity judges and then working up to Circuit, Family and Appeals Court judges.

Meantime, the Senate needs to do its job to reduce the need for the lower-court reviews.

State Sen. Kent Williams, the Marion Democrat who hand-picked Judge Barker in 2009, wouldn’t comment on the reprimand but told Mr. Wilks that the judge was a good magistrate with a firm grasp of the law. That’s not as egregious, but it’s reminiscent of the response by Fairfield Sen. Mike Fanning, who appointed and then reappointed the ethically challenged Judge Underwood.

Funny how blind we can be to the sins of our political allies.

Unfortunately, our system for appointing and reappointing magistrates actually encourages that blindness rather than compensating for it by requiring — or at least allowing — even a cursory vetting from people who don’t have a dog in the fight. Not just on paper, but in reality.

Technically, it’s the governor who appoints magistrates, not the resident senator; but governors know that these essential judicial positions will either remain unfilled or remain staffed by the incumbent if the governor doesn’t do the local senator’s bidding. So once a bad judge is in office, there’s nothing they can do about it.

And technically, the full Senate must confirm these appointments, but senators know that their own appointments will be rejected if they reject the appointments of their colleagues, so they practice a perversion of the Golden Rule.

It’s not realistic to expect individual senators to research whether there are conflicts or other problems with magistrates and would-be magistrates, even if the senators were willing to incur the wrath of their colleagues. That’s why the Senate needs to require independent, or at least public, vetting of nominees and magistrates up for reappointment.

And the full Legislature needs to change a particularly insidious law that allows magistrates to remain on the bench after their term expires. That allows the resident senator to turn what are supposed to be independent judges into at-will employees, by refusing to reappoint them and giving themselves the power to replace, at a moment’s notice, people who are now in holdover positions.

As for Judge Barker — who retired as a magistrate in April but currently works as a municipal judge for the city of Mullins — he says he always told defendants about his conflict of interest and that no one ever asked him to recuse himself. Of course, what he told them was that his wife worked as a captain in the sheriff’s office but was not directly involved in the case, thereby omitting the most important information: that the deputies worked for her.

It’s hard to see how a good judge with a firm grasp of the law could fail to understand that this was not in fact the advice the court gave him when he asked how to handle cases after his wife’s promotion. Which just underscores how important it is to stop allowing individual senators to decide who gets to put people in jail.

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The Times and Democrat. June 20, 2022.

Editorial: S.C. is state that welcomes military presence

May was officially Military Appreciation Month, but in South Carolina, the military is to be celebrated every month.

Not only is the direct impact around the state via bases and personnel very real, South Carolina is a great place for military retirees. The personal-finance website WalletHub found exactly that with its report on 2022’s Best & Worst States for Military Retirees.

To help troops plan their years after service, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 29 indicators of retirement-friendliness toward veterans. The data set ranges from job opportunities for veterans to housing affordability to quality of VA hospitals.

Military retirement in South Carolina (1=best; 25=average):

• 8th – Veterans per capita

• 17th – percent of homeless veterans

• 19th – Veteran job opportunities

• 25th – Housing affordability

• 16th – percent of veteran-owned businesses

• 9th – Number of VA benefits-administration facilities per number of veterans

The results should surprise no one. For a small state, South Carolina plays a large role with the nation’s military.

From major bases with active-duty personnel and reservists, to defense contractors and their civilian workforce, the economic effect of the U.S. military on the Palmetto State is substantial.

In its most recent joint report with the S.C. Military Base Task Force, the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business said the annual impact of the military community is $25.3 billion — over 8% of the state’s economy.

“The military is an indelible part of South Carolina, with eight major installations and our neighbor, Fort Gordon, Georgia,” Dan Beatty, chairman of the task force, told The Post and Courier of Charleston. “We have the 10th-largest number of military personnel of any state, and have the eighth-largest number of military retirees in the nation.”

The study shows the bases support 62,520 Department of Defense personnel from all the services with $2.6 billion in payroll. Some 752 firms are executing DOD contracts worth more than $2 billion.

The military presence translates to 191,519 full-time jobs supported, directly or indirectly, by the military along with $10.5 billion in income for state residents, according to the report.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, secretary of the Veterans’ Affairs Department, told the Charleston newspaper that the agency advocates every day for everyone associated with the bases.

“Our installations are critical to our nation’s national security, and they bring a direct and substantial economic impact to the state. More importantly, however, those in uniform and their families bring unique experiences, skills and values into the South Carolina community. They make invaluable contributions that simply cannot be measured in dollars,” he said. “Military people and facilities are quite literally woven into the fabric of South Carolina’s culture, and our great state would be something less than it is without them.”

In 2022, The Times and Democrat is continuing the “Stories of Honor” series in which we each week profile a person having served or now serving in the U.S. military. It’s the fourth year for the series that will conclude in July.

The profiles are an important way of saying thank you to all having served by telling the stories of those from Orangeburg, Calhoun and Bamberg counties nominated by T&D readers.

Our locale and South Carolina as a whole appreciate the military. And the military presence here is vital.

During Military Appreciation Month and every month, we salute the military community.

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The Index Journal. June 18, 2022.

Editorial: A holiday overdue, but more to be done

This Monday is the first year a new federal holiday is on the books and will be commemorated.

Sunday, also known as Juneteenth, commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans found out they were free, more than two years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It took word from Union soldiers to those enslaved in Galveston, Texas to ensure they had been granted their freedom.

When the holiday was officially signed into law last year, we celebrated this long overdue step and, in part, had this to say:

“In just two weeks, America will celebrate July Fourth to commemorate this country’s declaration of its independence 245 years ago. But in truth, the nation as a whole was not fully independent. At least, that is, its people were not.

“’... ‘that all men are created equal’ did not apply to all men and women. Slavery was an institution within the country, and it took a civil war to end slavery as an institution. Officially. On paper. Freedom does not come easily, nor does it automatically come with the stroke of a president’s pen, as those still enslaved in Galveston would learn.

“On July 4, we would do well to carry on our tradition of celebrating Independence Day, but we would do well to consider the Black experience in America and come to understand that the true independence and freedom afforded white Americans from 1776 forward, was not shared by the country’s African American citizens.

“And just as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not result in immediate freedom for all enslaved when signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, did not result in equal rights among all Black citizens.

“... History has taught us that presidents’ signatures on laws are not enough. Making Juneteenth a federal holiday goes a long way toward acknowledging another chapter in our imperfect nation’s history. It should also provide America a day to reflect on that chapter and strive, as one nation, to truly become a more perfect union.

“We can do that starting now.”

END