Top South Carolina Lawmakers Clash Over Delayed Judicial Elections
Row Heats Up Amidst Calls for Judicial Reform
In a startling turn of events, South Carolina’s General Assembly elections for over three dozen judges were not held as scheduled. This is the second year in a row that judicial elections in the state have been postponed without a clear plan for the future, sparking severe criticism and a verbal battle among the state’s top lawmakers on Wednesday.
South Carolina is among only two states in which the legislature elects judges. However, voices demanding a transformation of this system have been gaining strength over the past year. The proposed changes range from minor modifications to a total overhaul.
Amid Calls for Reform, Elections Delayed
For the judiciary elections to proceed, both the House and Senate need to pass resolutions to fix a date. The chosen date was supposed to be Wednesday. However, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Wes Climer, R – York and Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D – Richland, put a hold on the resolution vote. They had the strategy of implementing a judicial reform bill before progressing with the elections.
The cancellation of the elections caused a stir in the House of Representatives session, where House Speaker Murrell Smith, R – Sumter, placed the blame squarely on the senators for the delay. Smith highlighted the potential real-world consequences of the Senate’s ‘political machinations.’
The Risks of Delay
Smith pointed out that if the open positions in the circuit courts are not filled by July 1, an already congested judicial system could slow down even more. Typically, judges whose terms have ended can occupy the bench until replaced by legislators. But this isn’t applicable to circuit courts. Smith warned that the delay could result in justice being denied for the victims, delayed sentences, and potentially a rising crime rate due to criminals on bond walking free.
Attempting to highlight the magnitude of the issue, Smith stated that South Carolina’s criminal justice system is at risk of a “catastrophic halt.”
Senators Fire Back
Sen. Harpootlian responded to Smith’s criticisms from the Senate floor, dismissing his concerns as “crocodile tears.” Harpootlian argued that Smith, as a former chair of the House’s budget-writing committee, should show equal concern for the state spending plan, which is also due by July 1.
Senate President Thomas Alexander, R – Oconee, also addressed the controversy in the Senate, challenging Smith’s portrayal of the election delay as a public safety issue. Alexander recommended that instead of criticizing the senators, Smith should collaborate with them to find a solution. He concluded with a firm reminder that while the Senate would cooperate with the House, it didn’t work under it.
The delay marks the second consecutive year of postponements in judicial elections. Last year, a conflict over the selection of a new comptroller general led to the delay. As this issue spirals into a significant dispute between the House and Senate, it remains to be seen how lawmakers will navigate through these troubled waters towards resolution.