South Carolina's magistrate judges are a clown-car of corrupt cronies, but they get to put people in jail

South Carolina's magistrate judge system is a holdover from aristocratic England, where landowners would appoint someone with "common sense" to hear legal cases, without any legal training or oversight — which is how it works in South Carolina today, where 800,000+ criminal and civil cases are heard by magistrates who are not required to have a background in law, not required to divulge official sanctions for ethical violations, and not overseen in any meaningful way as they fine, jail and censure people who are often not represented by counsel nor permitted to speak in their own defense.

The SC system nominally gives the governor final say in magistrate appointments, but a former governor told Propublica that the senate actually appoints the judges, and any governor who tried to thwart the senate's picks would have their administration sabotaged.

The senate appointments are a litany of politically connected cronies, family members, and blundering fools (sometimes all three!). What's more, these magistrates sail through their reappointments when their terms are up, because the reappointment process does not require magistrates to disclose any sanctions they've received from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (which sanctions magistrates, lawyers and judges) — though they are required to disclose sanctions from the State Ethics Commission (which does not oversee magistrates and is not permitted to sanction them).

If you're a magistrate whose conduct is so egregious that you would likely fail the rubberstamp reappointment process, you can still stay in office by claiming "holdover" status, which is supposed to allow magistrates to serve briefly after their terms expire while paperwork is processed or new delegations are seated. One SC magistrate, Donna Lynah, has served for two decades on "holdover" status, and is a font of terrible decisions that deprive defendants of their Constitutional rights.

New magistrates are given only the briefest of orientations: inductees observe five civil and five criminal cases, and do 57.5 hours' worth of hands-on training (compare with SC barbers, who do 1,500 hours' worth of training!).

Apart from having a high-school diploma and a four-year college degree (in any subject), SC magistrates are expected to pass a "competency test" that can be sat in less than an hour and whose problems include "which number is larger" and "which date is most recent." Multiple magistrate judges have failed this test, multiple times, and the state claims that the records of these failures and re-takes is confidential and will not disclose it in response to public records requests.

A typical magistrate is someone like Arthur Bryngelson, a construction worker who was appointed thanks to his work as Dorchester County GOP chairman. Bryngelson had no background in law and later realized that he had repeatedly breached judicial ethics rules in his courtroom, where he had heard over 3,000 cases, a situation he blamed on "a lack of education." Bryngelson turned himself in to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and subsequently resigned.

There are some magistrates with legal training, but they are a rogue's gallery of nakedly corrupt and incompetent failures, like George K. Lyall, appointed last year after his nomination by state senator William Timmons (now serving in Congress!), who is a lifelong friend of Lyall's. Lyall pleaded guilty to multiple counts of stealing from his clients, taking "$49,000 from a family trust and $47,500 from a real estate partnership." Timmons says he knew about Lyall's unethical activities (which led to a suspension of his law license) when he nominated him, but said, "Even with that, you're not going to find somebody with more experience in the courtroom."

Magistrates who engage in grave misconduct during their terms are routinely reappointed, like Newberry County Magistrate Gordon Johnson, who was just reappointed despite receiving a 45-day suspension in 2016 after he head-butted and eye-gouged another man during a meeting of his local cotillion club, "which promotes good manners."

While other states have magistrate judge systems, the rest of the country has reformed the system to tighten oversight, require law licenses, and limit the kinds of cases that magistrates can hear. Attempts to get similar legislation passed in South Carolina have died in the senate, whose members enjoy the patronage system.

The miscarriages of justice under the magistrates include both overpunishing and underpunishing defendants. Many indigent defendants — often unrepresented by counsel and denied the right to speak in their own defense — are routinely jailed when they can't afford to pay their fines (Propublica documents multiple instances in which defendants lost their jobs and homes as a result of this, and also documents one woman who suffered a miscarriage after she was jailed while pregnant), while cronies of the magistrates are permitted to go free.

In some cases, these bro-deals can lead to murder, as when Clemon Stocker — a barber and BBQ chef turned magistrate — used his influence to secure a low bail for Willie Earl Reese, a relative who had pistol-whipped a man he believed was having an affair with his wife. Reese posted bond and murdered his wife five days later. Stocker was reappointed two years later. He was originally nominated by his good friend, state senator Darrell Jackson, "who insisted he could learn on the job."

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.

These Judges Can Have Less Training Than Barbers but Still Decide Thousands of Cases Each Year [Joseph Cranney/Propublica]