With 2021 nearly here, S.C. lawmakers likely won’t be making any New Year’s resolutions to loosen their tight grip on the state court system.
Legislative leaders have shown little interest in giving up power over the judicial selection process – which often favors friends and business associates of lawmakers.
Sen. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg, the newest member of the state judicial screening committee, was appointed just two months before the legislatively controlled panel qualified an attorney – who works in Talley’s law firm – as a candidate for a judgeship to oversee cases in areas of law practiced by the firm.
Records show that Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who chairs the judicial screening committee, known as the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), appointed Talley to the JMSC on Sept. 25.
After a screening hearing on Nov. 30, the JMSC qualified attorney Shannon Phillips, who works as an associate in Talley’s law firm, as a candidate for a master-in-equity judge’s seat in Spartanburg County.
Master-in-equity judges typically hear foreclosure and other real estate cases. Talley’s law firm handles those matters, as well as other types of civil and criminal cases, according to the firm’s website.
Talley himself represented a defendant in a foreclosure case, which was dismissed last week, before current Spartanburg County master-in-equity Gordon Cooper, court records show. Cooper, whose current term expires next June 30, is not seeking a new, six-year term, according to JMSC records.
Talley and his firm also have made money through ties with state agencies. On his last two annual income-disclosure statements filed this year and last with the State Ethics Commission, Talley reported earning a total of nearly $325,000 in cases before the state Workers’ Compensation Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, with consent of the Senate.
The Nerve previously have reported about lawyer-legislators who appear before the seven-member Workers’ Compensation Commission.
In addition, Talley’s law firm has earned thousands of dollars annually in recent years under a contract with the S.C. Department of Social Services, according to his income-disclosure statements.
State ethics law bans public officials from using their positions to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”
No one has accused Talley, a former state House member who was first elected to the Senate in 2016, of any wrongdoing.
In an email response Monday to The Nerve, Erin Crawford, chief attorney for the JMSC, said Talley “did not attend or participate” in any of the screening hearings for the Spartanburg County master-in-equity candidates, noting he was “recused” from participating based on a motion by another commission member.
“I wasn’t even in the building when she (Phillips) was screened,” Talley said in a phone interview this afternoon with The Nerve. “I did not participate in any of the screenings for any of the four candidates.”
Asked if he or other attorneys in his law firm could have any future cases before Phillips if she becomes the master-in-equity, Talley replied, “She would have to make that decision; I think that the law allows that.”
Master-in-equity judges, who have the same authority as circuit judges in non-jury civil cases, are chosen through a different process than other judges under state law.
The JMSC first screens and decides which candidates to qualify. County legislative delegations, made up of senators and House members who represent the counties, recommend a qualified candidate from their counties to the governor.
The governor decides whether to accept a delegation’s recommendation. The full General Assembly has to approve any candidates appointed by the governor.
Talley is a member of the Spartanburg County legislative delegation, which will decide whether to recommend Phillips to Gov. Henry McMaster for appointment to the Spartanburg County seat. The delegation will choose from among four candidates, including Phillips, who were qualified by the JMSC, records show.
Asked if he planned, as a member of the delegation, to vote to nominate Phillips or any of the other three qualified candidates, Talley told The Nerve, “I don’t think I’m precluded from doing so,” adding he would first consult with the State Ethics Commission.
Talley also said he didn’t believe it would be a conflict of interest for him to vote to nominate Phillips.
Besides Spartanburg County, six other county legislative delegations in the new legislative session that starts next month will decide whether to nominate qualified master-in-equity candidates – all incumbents – for their respective counties. Those counties include Beaufort, Calhoun, Greenville, Orangeburg, Richland and York counties.
The Nerve previously has reported about legislative delegations’ power over the judiciary, revealing last year that one senator in 12 counties each controls the appointment of that county’s magistrates.
Lawmakers also control the JMSC. Under state law, six of the 10 members are House and Senate lawmakers – currently all of whom are lawyers, including Talley.
House speaker and attorney Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, controls half of the JMSC’s appointments. Rankin, a lawyer who is the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, makes three appointments. Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, appoints the other two members. Talley, who was appointed by Rankin, is a Senate Judiciary Committee member.
South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in selecting judges.
The S.C. Legislature is expected to fill about two dozen judicial seats in elections tentatively scheduled for Feb. 3, though the open master-in-equity seats aren’t included.
“There is no set date, as it is all up to the individual (legislative) delegations as to when they meet and when they actually send the nomination to the governor,” Crawford told The Nerve.