Three candidates – two men and one woman – are being considered to fill two vacancies on the federal bench in South Carolina, according to sources in the state’s legal community.
The sources, some of whom did not want to be named because the selection process for the $199,100-a-year lifetime posts is confidential, identified the three candidates as:
• State Supreme Court Associate Justice Don Beatty, of Spartanburg, a former state representative and associate justice since 2007. If Beatty – who is in line to become chief justice in two years, if past succession trends hold true – gets a federal judgeship, that could possibly upset future State Supreme Court successions. Beatty, an African-American, is a 1979 graduate of the University of South Carolina law school.
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• Donald Coggins Jr., 55, a trial lawyer in Spartanburg who is a partner in a small but prominent law firm that represents individuals in cases involving corporations or the government. Coggins, a 1984 USC law school graduate, represents both plaintiffs and defendants. According to his firm’s Internet site, Coggins was part of a legal team that won a “record-breaking” $327 million verdict against a subsidiary of giant pharmaceutical company, Johnson & Johnson.
• First Assistant U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Beth Drake, 51, of Columbia, a 20-year veteran federal prosecutor. Drake, a former 5th Circuit assistant solicitor, has held a variety of posts at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and is a 1987 USC law school graduate.
“Those are the three names that I’ve heard,” said Columbia lawyer Pete Strom, a former U.S. Attorney and one of the people vetting teams contact about the quality of judicial candidates.
Former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges, who has connections with President Barack Obama’s White House, confirmed that Beatty and Drake were going through the vetting process, adding he has heard of Coggins as a possible candidate.
Beatty, Coggins and Drake all declined to comment about their possible nominations.
Federal district judgeships are regarded as top jobs in the nation’s legal system. The district court is the lowest rung of the federal judicial system, under the regional Courts of Appeals. All are below the U.S. Supreme Court.
A federal district judge deals with everything from violations of federal drug and gun laws to historical constitutional issues such as gay marriage. In 2014, two S.C. federal judges – Michelle Childs and Richard Gergel – struck down South Carolina’s anti-gay rights laws when they ruled that same-sex marriages are legal.
Behind the scenes, politics swirl about the three prospective nominees. Under the Constitution, President Obama, a Democrat, nominates candidates to the U.S. Senate for confirmation.
But as a practical matter, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee – the first hurdle a judicial candidate must clear – won’t recommend approval of a candidate by the full Senate without the OK of both home state senators – in South Carolina’s case, Republicans Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.
And this year, as Republicans control of the Senate and the Judiciary Committee, it remains to be seen whether that committee would approve two Democratically-identified judicial candidates, as are Beatty and Drake, from one state.
Beatty was a Democratic state representative before becoming a Supreme Court associate justice, while Drake’s husband, Dwight, is a prominent Democrat. Coggins, whose law firm Harrison White Smith & Coggins, is known as Republican-leaning, is said to be backed by Sen. Graham. A Graham spokesman declined a request for comment.
The situation opens the possibility for a package deal, whereby Obama would agree to nominate the Graham-backed Coggins and put forward only one of the Democrats, either Beatty or Drake.
The two vacancies were created by longtime Judges Cam Currie and Joe Anderson taking senior status.
Obama had nominated State Circuit Court Judge Alison Lee to fill Currie’s slot, but Lee withdrew when she lost key support from Graham and Scott after The State reported she had lowered the bond of a potentially violent criminal who went on to kill someone else during an armed robbery.
Coggins and Drake have largely stayed away from controversy. But in 2013, Beatty made headlines when he allegedly made disparaging remarks about state solicitors. Most solicitors and Attorney General Alan Wilson publicly complained. The controversy has since died down.