S.C. senators maintain strong grip on local magistrates

S.C. senators maintain strong grip on local magistrates


Update: 10/16/23- Less than three weeks after this story and a companion investigative piece were published, Gov. Henry McMaster in a letter to the S.C. Senate called for reforms in the magistrate selection process, pointing out that his "relatively recent predecessors adopted or acceded to a custom of senatorial deference, whereby a local senator or county senatorial delegation is relied upon as the sole source for nominations." McMaster in his letter contended that candidates have not been "sufficiently vetted in recent years" and noted that dozens of magistrates have been "acting in a holdover capacity" after their four-year terms have expired. He announced that future candidates who are considered by him for appointment will be required to complete "more detailed applications" and "waive confidentiality protections" for "any attorney or judicial disciplinary proceedings."

State law allows senators to keep local magistrates on the bench long after the judges’ terms expire – giving lawmakers tighter control over their jobs.

As of mid-July, 78, or a quarter, of the state’s 306 magistrates identified on the S.C. Judicial Department’s website were in what’s known as “holdover status,” according to lists released by the Governor’s Office and Judicial Department after The Nerve submitted state Freedom of Information Act requests.

At least one magistrate in 22 of the state’s 46 counties was listed in that status, with Spartanburg County topping the group with 20 judges.

Nine magistrates have been in holdover status for at least five years, with two judges – both in Oconee County – serving more than 17 years beyond when their terms expired, The Nerve’s review found. The terms of 54 of the 78 judges, including 19 from Spartanburg County, expired on April 30 of this year, records show.

The total number of magistrates in holdover status nearly doubled since The Nerve last reported about the issue in 2021.

Magistrates handle traffic tickets and other relatively minor criminal and civil cases. They don’t have to be lawyers, though those appointed in recent years must have a bachelor’s degree.

Magistrates are appointed by the governor with “advice and consent” of the 46-member Senate. But as The Nerve revealed in another investigative story published with this piece, one or two senators often control nominations in their respective counties.

Under state law, magistrates serve four-year terms “and until their successors are appointed and qualified,” which means they can continue working after their terms expire if allowed by their local senators.

It also means senators with nomination control can fire those judges in holdover status at any time. Senators have no firing authority by themselves while magistrates are serving their regular terms, though the S.C. Supreme Court can remove them for ethical violations.

Senator-lawyer Tom Young, R-Aiken, introduced a bill earlier this year that would cap the holdover period at 14 days and allow the governor to make a temporary appointment if needed until the Senate confirmed a permanent candidate. Aiken County has no magistrates in holdover status, according to the Governor’s Office and Judicial Department lists.

The bill didn’t get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by senator-lawyer Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who didn’t respond to The Nerve’s recent request for comment. If the bill doesn’t pass the Legislature next year, it would have to be reintroduced in 2025, given the two-year legislative cycle.

Young said he believes current state law gives senators too much control over magistrates in holdover status. The intent of his bill, he said, is to “empower the governor to deal with the holdover magistrate issue” while allowing local senators to “retain the ability to nominate or renominate (candidates) to the Governor’s Office.”

“We’re codifying the balance,” Young said. “Otherwise, we just have an indefinite amount of period for the holdover.”

‘More accountable’

But Sen. Rex Rice, R-Pickens, says he supports keeping magistrates in holdover status if necessary. Three Pickens County magistrates have been serving past their terms for more than five years, records show.

“By having them in holdover status, my belief is they are more accountable because I could change them tomorrow,” said Rice, who controls most of the weighted senatorial delegation vote in his county – 79.39%, according to Senate records provided to The Nerve under the Freedom of Information Act.

Asked if keeping magistrates in that status gives him too much control over them, Rice replied, “I don’t think it does because I have the power to appoint them anyway.”

He pointed out that as a contractor, he doesn’t appear before magistrates in his county or represents clients before them, adding, “So I have no conflict of interest before them.”

All three magistrates in holdover status are doing a good job for now, Rice said. Given that, asked why he doesn’t reappoint them to new four-year terms, he replied, "If someone came to me tomorrow and said, ‘Sign right here and reappoint them,’ I’d reappoint them,” though he repeated his contention that  keeping them in holdover “just makes them a little more accountable.”

Rice said he believes a bigger issue currently than holdover status occurs when a senator “comes in and cleans house, getting rid of every magistrate there and putting their buddies in there.”

Years in holdover

The Nerve left recent written or phone messages for eight senators whose districts include magistrates in holdover status for at least five years. Rice was the only lawmaker in that group to respond.

Legislators who didn’t respond included Republican Senate president Thomas Alexander of Oconee County, where two magistrates – chief judge Blake Norton and William Derrick – have been serving more than 17 years past their terms, records from the Governor's Office and Judicial Department show. Alexander is the sole nominator of magistrates in his home county and has 20.61% of the weighted senatorial delegation vote in Pickens County, according to Senate records.

For most Oconee County magistrates, their annual pay ranged from $54,489 to $89,357, according to the fiscal year 2022 wage-and-salary survey by the South Carolina Association of Counties. Magistrates’ salaries vary widely statewide.

Alexander isn’t the only lawmaker whose Senate district includes multiple magistrates in holdover status. That group includes, for example, Senate minority leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, whose district includes parts of Allendale, Colleton, Hampton and Orangeburg counties, as well as all of Bamberg and Barnwell counties, where he has sole nomination authority over magistrates there.

Records show that Barnwell County magistrate Robert Cooper has served past his term by more than four years, while three Orangeburg County magistrates are among the 54 judges who have been in holdover status since April 30.

Hutto recently told The Nerve that he hasn’t reappointed Cooper because he is facing the mandatory judicial retirement age of 72.

Following is a list of magistrates who have been in holdover status for at least four years, according to the Governor’s Office and Judicial Department lists:




Holdover period-years

William Francis Derrick



Blake Andrew Norton



Shirley Cockman Davidson



Tina Gibson McMillan



Harold Whitney Smith



Vivian Le-Nette Patrick



Michael Andrew Baker



Benjamin Alexander Dow



Stanley Michael Gillespie



Robert Oscar Cooper*



Cheveron Terrell Scott



Johnathan Dwayne Guiles



Gwendolyn Roberts McNeil



Isaac Lester Pyatt



Grover McQueen



Toney Lein Farr



*Wasn’t reappointed because he is facing the mandatory judicial retirement age of 72, according to Sen Hutto.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-394-8273 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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