South Carolina's feudal magistrate system may take a modest step toward modernization

Propublica's blockbuster report on the magistrate judges in South Carolina revealed a system of patronage, cronies, and gross miscarriages of justice, with judges appointed on the say-so of a single state senator, without regard to whether they had any legal experience (some judges took the bench after working construction, or as pharmacists, or as underwear distributors), and without any vetting of their ethical lapses (some judges were disgraced lawyers who stole from clients, or retired lawmakers notorious for their racism).

Earlier attempts to reform the magistrate system had foundered in South Carolina's senate, whose members jealously guard their power to hand over these patronage appointments to connected party insiders and outgoing lawmakers.

But Propublica's story may yet shame South Carolina's lawmakers into taking some halting, tiny steps toward reform: state senator Thom Davis [R-Beaufort] has proposed legislation that would require the House as well as the Senate to confirm prospective magistrates, which would end the practice of appointing judges on the say-so of a single senator. Davis would also end the practice of allowing judges to serve after their terms end as "holdovers" (a practice designed to allow judges to serve briefly between their term expiry and their reappointments while paperwork is processed, but which has allowed some SC magistrates to serve for decades without being reconfirmed). Under the proposal, magistrates would receive additional legal training.

The proposal also prohibits nepotism, barring lawmakers from nominating their family members, and would bar ex-lawmakers from serving as magistrates for two years after their terms expire. Finally, it will allow defendants convicted by magistrates who lack a law license to have their case re-tried in front of a judge who has one.

Additionally, the governor has promised to reform the appointment procedure to require nominees to disclose their prior disciplinary offenses (incredibly, this was not already a requirement!).

Some senators oppose the measure: Sen. Marlon Kimpson [D-Charleston] says that it "adds a bureaucratic process to a political process," and that he "didn't see how it would help" (Kimpson serves on the Senate judiciary committee); Sen. Dick Harpootlian [D-20] doesn't believe the proposals go far enough and would like magistrates screened by panels similar to those used to vet circuit judges (Harpootlian is also on the Senate judiciary committee).

One significant barrier to reform is magistrates' salaries, which can run below $50,000. It's hard to attract and retrain qualified lawyers to serve at that wage.

But Susan Dunn, the ACLU’s legal director in South Carolina, said that change doesn’t go far enough. She called on the state to increase magistrate salaries, providing an incentive for more lawyers to take the bench.

The median salary for full-time magistrates is roughly $77,000, according to data the judges self report to court administration. Pay, however, is calculated by county, based on population. In some rural areas, the judges make less than $50,000.

“We’re trying to run a system of justice on the cheap and there’s a limit to what you can do,” Dunn said.

We Investigated Magistrates. Now, Lawmakers Want to Overhaul the System [Joseph Cranney/Propublica]