COLUMBIA — As she nears South Carolina's mandatory judicial retirement age of 72, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal's years on the high court are limited by simple mathematics.
The jurist, who turns 70 this year, is seeking another term in the court's top spot after her current one expires next summer. But in a move that has surprised the state's legal community, a fellow jurist who has served alongside Toal for more than a decade has decided to challenge her bid for re-election.
South Carolina lawmakers select the state's judges. This month, some of them received letters from both Toal and Associate Justice Costa Pleicones stating their intent to run for chief justice next year.
The judicial selection process is lengthy and involves the candidates being screened by a 10-member panel before legislators cast their votes. Having been through the process already, sitting judges are nearly always approved and, in most circumstances, re-elected by the Legislature, where lobbying in contested races can be heated.
Toal herself used to be tasked with making those selections, serving as a state lawmaker from 1975 until 1988, when she became the first woman elected to South Carolina's highest court. When Toal became chief justice in 2000, Pleicones – then a circuit court judge – was elected to serve out the rest of her unexpired term.
Toal did not respond to a request seeking comment.
In an email to The Associated Press, Pleicones, 69, said he felt his nearly three decades of judicial experience qualified him for the post, which he has long planned to occupy.
“As the senior associate justice, I resolved years ago to offer to succeed the Chief Justice at the end of her current term,” Pleicones said. “I look forward to sharing my qualifications for this office with members of the General Assembly.”
Rep. Joe Neal, a Columbia legislator, said he received letters this month from both Toal and Pleicones. The letters were brief, Neal said, and gave no specific reasons for wanting to be chief justice.
John Freeman is a Columbia attorney and retired University of South Carolina law professor who has previously served on the panel that screens South Carolina's judicial candidates. He said that, while there could certainly be more to the back story on Pleicones' decision to challenge Toal, the competition between the longtime colleagues will attract lots of attention.
“You hate to see, frankly, what cannot be, for either of the candidates, a pleasant situation,” Freeman said. “Here it comes down to the final months of their legal careers, and they find each other doing battle against each other for a job. You hate to see that, but there are reasons that this happened that we're not privy to, other than they both want the same job.”