SC Magistrate Reforms

ProPublica had a good article on South Carolina magistrate system. It is an antiquated system of justice. A 2019 series by The Post and Courier and ProPublica exposed how a flawed system of selection and oversight provided fertile ground for misconduct on the bench.

Gov. McMaster wants changes to the qualifications and oversight of South Carolina magistrates after years of abuse and incompetence among the state’s front-line judges. Magistrates have accepted bribes, stolen money, mishandled trials, violated constitutional protections. The governor in his State of the State address called for reforms to prevent corruption by South Carolina’s 300 magistrate judges.

The reforms include that every magistrate be a practicing lawyer with a clean record. Seems reasonable since magistrates sit in judgment on hundreds of thousands of criminal and civil cases each year. McMaster wants to change the process for screening and approving candidates.

“The first step in reform is transparency and accountability,” McMaster said.

Sen. Tom Davis wants more formal legal training among magistrates. Sen. Tom Young proposed legislation to prevent magistrates from hiding prior ethical offenses while applying for new terms.  The Post and Courier and ProPublica found a dozen sitting judges who have been disciplined for misconduct by the state’s judicial watchdog skated through their last appointment.

Sen. Luke Rankin chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Rankin said he had not read the investigation. Rankin said no senator has broached the subject of magistrate reform with him.

“It may be far more of an issue than I’m aware of.”

Sen. Shane Massey welcomed the governor’s call for reforms. Rep. Murrell Smith said lawmakers should follow the governor’s lead.

“Nobody’s really been willing to take on and improve the magistrate system,” Smith said. “Now, the governor has made that call.”