Five candidates vying for a seat as judge on the state’s 16th Circuit will be formally vetted later this month before appearing for a Statehouse election at the end of May.
Candidates to replace current Judge Lee Alford are public defender Dan Hall, personal injury attorney William McKinnon, defense attorney Jim Morton, attorney Leah Moody, and deputy circuit solicitor Willy Thompson.
The seat is one of two judicial positions that primarily handle criminal and civil cases for York and Union counties. The other seat is held by Judge John Hayes III, whose term is set to expire in 2016.
The candidates will appear before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission on April 28 in Columbia for a public hearing where commissioners will thoroughly vet each lawyer's experience and credentials for the job.
The panel of 10 commissioners, which comprises of state Senate and House appointees, will investigate each candidate for qualifications that include “ethical fitness,” “judicial temperament,” and other assets such as reputation and character, according to a checklist.
Alford, 72, has served in the seat since 1998 and will retire at the end of this year.
Regulations specifically bar candidates from communication with any state legislator regarding the screening process or to secure a vote for the May 28 election, when the General Assembly elects a candidate for the seat.
Thompson works in the 16th Circuit's solicitor’s office, while Hall works in the circuit's public defender's office.
Thompson said he appreciates the “consistency” of judges Alford and Hayes when it comes to “competency” and “demeanor” in the courtroom. “I’d like to continue that tradition,” he said, adding that he has years of courtroom and case management experience.
“We became the best circuit in the state at moving cases quickly,” Thompson said of his role as deputy solicitor. He has been a prosecutor since 1992.
Hall said he is running because he can be “fair and impartial.” He has worked previously as an assistant solicitor and as a municipal judge in York.
McKinnon is with McGowan, Hood & Felder, a malpractice and injury firm in Rock Hill where he specializes in business litigation. According to his firm biography, McKinnon has also clerked for state and federal judges.
Morton is a founding partner of Rock Hill law firm, Morton & Gettys, where he focuses on criminal defense and personal injury cases. He is representing defendant Billy Wayne Cope in a 2001 criminal case that included a life prison sentence for Cope over the alleged murder of his 12-year-old daughter.
Morton said he is interested in the seat as a way of giving back to a community he has served for years. He is working to appeal Cope’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’ve been on both sides,” Morton said of his legal experience. “I’ve prosecuted lots of serious cases, and I’ve done a fair amount of civil work.”
Moody – the only female and black candidate – is based in Rock Hill and runs a firm that handles both civil and criminal matters. She is representing Shaiderius Cohen, one of three teens accused of murder in a 2013 case that left a Chester woman dead. Moody also previously served as deputy legal counsel to former Gov. Jim Hodges.
Moody said she considers the position a “personal” but “welcome challenge” and a civic obligation to give back to the community.
Each candidate’s academic, legal and financial histories will be checked by the commission during the public hearing, which will report its findings to the state General Assembly. The hearing also will look into any affidavits received from the public concerning any of the candidates, as well as any grievances or complaints lodged against them.
A review of each candidate’s financial history will be used to assess “self-discipline and the ability to withstand pressures which might compromise independence and impartiality,” according to the checklist.
Both 16th Circuit judges receive an annual salary of less than $135,000, according to a state compensation database.