By RICK BRUNDRETT
Next month, the Horry County legislative delegation could recommend one of three master-in-equity judicial candidates to the governor for appointment to the six-figure seat.
One of the candidates is former state Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Myrtle Beach attorney who was a longtime member of the Horry County delegation before his unexpected resignation from the Legislature in 2020, and also served for years on the legislatively controlled judicial screening committee – including a stint as its chairman – which qualifies master-in-equity candidates.
That would seem to give him a distinct advantage for the Horry County judicial seat.
Clemmons, a Republican House member who was first elected in 2002 and served until mid-July 2020, was among more than 50 judicial candidates statewide found qualified by the six-legislator, 10-member Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) following screening hearings in November and December, records show.
Master-in-equity (MIE) judges, who serve six-year terms, typically hear foreclosure and other real estate cases. They have the same authority as circuit judges in non-jury civil cases but are chosen through a different process compared to other types of judges.
The JMSC first screens and decides which candidates to qualify. County legislative delegations, made up of senators and House members representing a particular county, recommend a qualified candidate from their county to the governor, who decides whether to accept a delegation’s nomination – typically approved after routine background checks. The full Legislature usually confirms candidates appointed by the governor.
South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in selecting judges.
The JMSC qualified Clemmons and two other candidates – Charles Jordan Jr. and Douglas Zayicek – for the Horry County MIE seat. Former MIE Cynthia Graham Howe decided not to run for another six-year term; her annual salary when her term expired last July 31 was $188,873, according to a county spokeswoman and legislative records.
The Nerve on Tuesday asked Clemmons, a former House Rules Committee chairman, if he believes he holds an edge over his two challengers because he is an ex-lawmaker and former delegation member, though he didn’t respond to the written inquiry. Before he was a House member, he was an unsuccessful candidate in 1998 for a circuit court seat, according to records he submitted to the JMSC.
The Nerve in July detailed Clemmons’ decision to resign his longtime House seat slightly more than a year before formally becoming a candidate for the Horry County MIE position. He had won the Republican primary election for his House seat just several weeks before his July 17, 2020, resignation, though he said in an affidavit to the State Election Commission that he was withdrawing from the general election because he was representing new legal clients who will “require a large investment of my time and focus.”
State law requires that former lawmakers wait at least a year before being elected by the Legislature to judgeships.
Contacted Tuesday, Republican Sen. Greg Hembree, a former solicitor who is the Horry County delegation chairman and also served on the JMSC, said a delegation meeting is scheduled for Feb. 4 to recommend one of the three qualified MIE candidates to Gov. Henry McMaster for appointment.
Hembree, who is the Senate Education Committee chairman, didn’t respond by publication of this story to follow-up questions about which candidate he supports, or if he believes Clemmons has an advantage given his legislative ties.
As The Nerve has pointed out, county legislative delegations exercise considerable control over local matters, including the selection of county MIE judges. The Nerve, for example, in December 2020, revealed that Sen. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg, was appointed to the JMSC just two months before the commission qualified Shannon Phillips, who worked in Talley’s law firm, for a Spartanburg County MIE seat.
The Legislature last May confirmed Phillips for the seat, less than three months after the Spartanburg County delegation, of which Talley is a member, quietly nominated her, as The Nerve reported.
In 2019, The Nerve revealed that one senator in 12 counties controls the appointments of that county’s magistrates.
In the latest round of judicial elections, the JMSC publicly released its 286-page screening report last week for most candidates. The Legislature is scheduled to fill those seats in a joint session on Feb. 2.
But screening report didn’t include individual evaluations of Clemmons and eight other qualified candidates for seven mostly uncontested MIE seats statewide. That’s because state law requires the commission to forward those candidate reports to the “appropriate county legislative delegations.”
At The Nerve’s request on Tuesday, Erin Crawford, the JMSC’s chief lawyer, provided screening reports for the contested Horry County seat and other uncontested MIE seats.
The Horry County report noted that the JMSC believes that “Mr. Clemmons’s temperament would be excellent,” though at his Dec. 1 screening hearing, several concerns were raised in a standard survey sent by the commission to S.C. licensed attorneys that he was sexist and vindictive against his political enemies – allegations that he denied. His screening report didn’t mention those accusations.
The report also said JMSC members “commented that Mr. Clemmons has a longstanding history and excellent reputation for public service and has extensive legal experience before the Master-in-Equity.”
In addition, the report included separate findings issued by the Judicial Qualifications Committee of the South Carolina Bar – the professional organization for lawyers in the state. In that analysis, which was based on surveys of Bar members, one of Clemmons’ challengers – Jordan – received an overall “well-qualified” rating, compared to overall “qualified” ratings for Clemmons and the other challenger, Zayicek.
Three of the JMSC’s 10 members serve in the 15-member Horry County legislative delegation: Republican Sen. Luke Rankin, Democratic Sen. Ronnie Sabb, and GOP Rep. Jeff Johnson, all of whom are attorneys.
Under state law, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman – currently Rankin – appoints three members of the JMSC. The House speaker – currently Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington – gets five appointments, while the Senate president – currently Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee – has two.
Rankin and Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who is the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, are the current vice chairman and chairman, respectively, of the JMSC.
As part of the latest JMSC screening report on Horry County MIE candidates, Clemmons said he had “appeared in many cases before the Master in Equity in assorted types of matters, including foreclosure, construction, contract and collection cases.”
“That desire to serve that I recognized at a young age has driven me in many ways,” Clemmons said in the report. “But for that drive to serve others, I doubt that I would have entered the legal profession or that I would have ever offered for elected office. It is a driving force now as I offer to serve as the Master in Equity for Horry County.”
At the very least, while a House member, Clemmons for years serviced the wardrobes of the 124-member House and its staff, spending thousands of dollars of his campaign funds to buy men’s neck ties and women’s scarves from a Taiwan-based company to present to House members and staff, as well as to “various dignitaries,” as The Nerve revealed in 2014.
In a written response then to The Nerve, Clemmons said the clothing items “prominently feature the seal of the South Carolina House of Representatives and have a tag sewn to the back stating, ‘Presented by Rep Alan Clemmons.’” He also said the expenditures were “permissible” under a House Ethics Committee opinion.
If Clemmons is nominated by the Horry County legislative delegation and subsequently appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, he would be the second ex-House member in recent years to become a judge after resigning his legislative seat. In 2019, former Rep. Mike Pitts was quietly confirmed by the Senate as a Laurens County magistrate – an appointment pushed by Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, as The Nerve reported then.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.