Beaufort News

Legislators, judge debate diversity in state courts

An all-star panel -- including three state legislators and a circuit court judge -- took questions about diversity in state courts at a forum Wednesday, though not everyone seemed on board with a proposal to change judicial elections in South Carolina.

The event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area, is part of a nationwide campaign to promote impartial courts and diversity on the bench.

"There are target states," said Barbara Zia, co-president of the S.C. league, after the event. "South Carolina is one of them."

According to information distributed at the event, only 28 percent of the state's judges are women, and only 12 percent are minorities.

Judges on the supreme, appeals, circuit, family and administrative law courts are elected by state legislators. Applicants are first vetted by the 10-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which forwards three candidates to the General Assembly.

Among the league's recommendations are:

  • requiring the commission to reflect the state's diversity
  • increasing the number of applicants that the legislature considers
  • shortening the time candidates campaign for support.
  • Judge Carmen Mullen of the 14th Circuit Court said she sees the importance of judicial diversity.

    For instance, she said, consider a hypothetical case of a 30-year-old black male convicted of second-degree burglary, which can carry no jail time or up to 15 years.

    "I better have some type of idea what his background is, what his experience is, what has happened to him in his life, and why he is at this point," Mullen said.

    State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he agrees with the league's statements that diversity on the bench helps inspire confidence in the fairness of the court system.

    But Davis argued selecting judges because they reflect societal perspectives would undermine the rule of law.

    State Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head, agreed.

    "Objectivity should never be measured by race or gender," he said. "At the end of the day, we're expecting these people -- men, women, black, white, Asian, Hispanic -- to be objective and to be qualified, and those are the criteria for which we should select them, regardless of their race or gender."

    State. Rep. David Mack III, D-Charleston, who serves on the judicial selection commission, disagreed, but said he appreciated the debate.

    "To me, the biggest thing about this is we're having the dialog; we're having the discussion," Mack said.

    Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

    Related content:

    County lawyers give nod to DeWitt; selection process under fire, Jan. 31, 2006

    After months of controversy, Mullen sworn in as 14th Circuit judge, July 12, 2006

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