Attorney General Alan Wilson and state House Speaker Bobby Harrell are awaiting a decision by the state Supreme Court on whether Wilson, the state’s top attorney, may continue an investigation into Harrell’s use of campaign funds. And while the public also waits to hear the news, let’s review South Carolina’s judicial selection process for its highest court.
A 10-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission screens justices for the Supreme Court before presenting them to the General Assembly, which then votes to fill seats on the five-member court. Harrell’s brother, John Davis Harrell serves on the commission, which is composed of business leaders and lawmakers.
The House speaker appoints five members to the commission—three from the General Assembly and two from the general public. The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman appoints three members, and the Senate President Pro Tempore appoints two members—three from the General Assembly and two from the general public.
The court heard Tuesday from Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters and Harrell’s attorney, Robert Stepp, who argued Wilson failed to properly refer to the House Ethics Committee a complaint over Harrell’s potential misuse of campaign funds for personal use and over potential involvement in conflicts of interest on behalf of family.
Wilson asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate Harrell after Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian-leaning South Carolina Policy Council, approached him on the matter. Waters argued Tuesday, as Wilson had in a previous hearing, that civil penalties can also be criminal in nature. Wilson has worked to keep the matter before a public court.
Chief Justice Jean Toal, who bested Justice Costa Pleicones in a race for her seat earlier this year, called Wilson’s handling of the allegations unprecedented. Toal, along with Justice Donald Beatty, is a former House member. Also serving on the court are justices John Kittredge and Kaye Hearn. Justice Hearn’s husband, George Hearn served in the South Carolina House from 2008 to 2012.
According to the American Bar Association, South Carolina is one of five states that rely primarily on the governor or legislature to appoint judges. In California, Maine and New Jersey, the governors oversee these appointments. Virginia is the only other state in which the legislature has that authority. Other states choose judges through a combination of selection commissions, elections and other methods.