The S.C. Senate’s quiet move at the end of last week’s special legislative session to confirm Mike Pitts as a Laurens County magistrate surprised even some senators when the former state House member’s name was quickly read across the desk.
That’s likely because, in part, the appointment of the more than 300 magistrates in South Carolina is largely controlled by small county Senate delegations, which typically make their choices behind closed doors. In Pitts’ case, just one senator – Danny Verdin – has that power over Laurens County’s four magistrates.
Verdin is not alone. In 12 counties, one-senator delegations have that authority over a total of 54 magistrates, or about 17%, of the 318 magistrates statewide; in 17 other counties, two senators largely control the process for a collective 82 magistrates, or about 26% of the overall number, The Nerve found in a review of state legislative and court records.
Senate president Harvey Peeler, for example, is the lone senator in his county delegation, controlling the selection of five magistrates in Cherokee County. In Bamberg County, which has two magistrates, and in Barnwell County, which has four magistrates, that power falls to Sen. Brad Hutto, who is a trial lawyer.
Sens. Kevin Johnson of Clarendon County and Ronnie Sabb of Williamsburg County, an attorney, have lone county delegation control over nine and seven magistrates, respectively – the single-highest numbers among that group. The Nerve’s review also found that 18 senator-lawyers have sole authority or share that power in 32 of the state’s 46 counties.
The other senators who have sole county delegation control include Thomas Alexander (Oconee County), Ronnie Cromer (Newberry County), Mike Fanning (Chester, Fairfield counties), Shane Massey (Edgefield) and Kent Williams (Marion County). No more than eight senators in any given county share that control, records show.
Senators’ selection power is amplified in counties where magistrates are serving – legally – past their four-year terms, a situation known as “holdover status,” as The Nerve first reported in 2010.
As of Tuesday, 80 magistrates, or a quarter of the overall total, were in “holdover status,” according to state Judicial Department records provided to The Nerve. That list included eight magistrates in counties with one senator.
Magistrate courts, which handle traffic tickets and other low-penalty criminal cases, along with small civil claims, are important because they are the highest court level that many affected S.C. citizens typically will experience. Magistrates generally handle criminal cases with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, and civil cases with claimed maximum damages of $7,500.
Under state law, magistrates don’t have to be attorneys but must hold at least a bachelor’s degree if appointed after July 1, 2005, and also are required to pass a state certification test within one year of taking office. Pitts, for example, is not a lawyer, though he has criminal justice experience as a former police officer.
State law says that the governor appoints magistrates with “advice and consent” of the 46-member Senate. But in practice, county Senate delegations privately nominate magistrates and forward their names to the governor, who typically appoints them after routine background checks.
And unlike most higher-level judges who are nominated after public hearings by a legislatively controlled screening panel before being voted on by the entire Legislature in a joint session, magistrates typically are confirmed – as with Pitts last week— in an unrecorded voice vote of senators, who usually defer to the respective delegation’s wishes.
South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in selecting judges.
Neither Pitts, who resigned his House seat in January in an unsuccessful bid to become the next state Conservation Bank director, nor Sen. Verdin returned messages last week from The Nerve seeking comment. When The Nerve asked the Governor’s Office last week about when exactly Pitts was appointed – and why – staff attorney Mardi Fair referred those questions to Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman, Brian Symmes, who did not respond.
The Nerve later submitted a formal request to the Governor’s Office under the state Freedom of Information Act for related records. That request is pending.
The Judicial Department’s website already lists Pitts, a former House Ethics Committee chairman, as a Laurens County magistrate under the title, “The Honorable Michael A. Pitts.” Under state law, a magistrate’s base salary ranges from 35% to 55% of a circuit judge’s salary in the previous fiscal year, depending upon the population size of that county.
In Pitts’ case, his base salary this fiscal year is $63,609. Counties are allowed to pay even higher salaries to magistrates; in Richland County, for example, Tomothy Edmond, that county’s chief administrative magistrate, receives at least $117,000 annually, according to a county salary database maintained by The State newspaper.
Laurens County administrator Jon Caime did not respond this week to written questions from The Nerve about salaries for Pitts and the county’s other three magistrates.
The Nerve in December reported that S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, who heads the Judicial Department, was seeking a 33% pay hike for himself and other higher-level judges – which the Legislature approved as part of the approximately $30 billion state budget that took effect Monday.
Because magistrates’ base salaries are tied to circuit judges’ salaries, Pitts’ base salary in fiscal 2021 will jump 33% to $84,685.