The S.C. Supreme Court issued a public reprimand and lifted the suspension Wednesday against Chester County Magistrate Judge Angel Underwood, wife of Sheriff Alex Underwood.
The court said Underwood had handled more than 100 cases in which she should have told parties involved she was married to the county’s sheriff.
Underwood, a judge in Chester since 2011, can return to the bench immediately.
Underwood referred questions to her lawyer, Stanley Myers of Columbia, who said she is “happy to return to her duties” and could be back on the bench later this week. She “appreciates the court’s decision,” Myers said.
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The investigation and ruling clearly show that while she “complied with the spirit of the law,” Myers said, Judge Underwood did not comply with technical disclosures in some cases and will handle that disclosure properly from now on.
Underwood has complied with the court’s ruling of a one-year suspension, retroactive to May 2015, when she was suspended, and “there is no impediment” for her to “return to the bench,” because the suspension is over, said Robert McCurdy, assistant director of S.C. Court Administration.
The Supreme Court’s reprimand cited Underwood’s failure to either disqualify herself in cases involving the sheriff’s office or to disclose her relationship to the sheriff and allow the parties involved to be heard before another judge. In all cases, she should have put the findings on the record in court.
The court found that in 101 cases since her husband was elected sheriff in 2012, Underwood did not go through the formal process.
No defendants complained, the ruling states, but an investigation was launched after state judicial officials were advised of the problem.
The governor appoints all magistrates after a recommendation from the state senator representing the county. Vacancies for magistrates have been filled in Chester County since Judge Underwood was suspended, but none of those appointments filled her position, McCurdy said.
Magistrates typically handle traffic cases, misdemeanor criminal cases, civil cases under $10,000, bond hearings, probable cause hearings, and other matters.
Underwood is one of five Chester County magistrates.
Judge Barbara Cameron, the county’s chief magistrate, said Wednesday she had not been advised as to when Underwood would return to hearing cases.
The probe found that on one jury trial, Underwood believed that since the jury would decide the outcome, she did not have to tell of her relationship to the sheriff. In other cases, Underwood believed that people who wanted her to accept guilty pleas knew of her relationship to the sheriff and waived any conflict, but rules require each defendant to go on record as accepting any judge who has a potential conflict.
Sheriff Underwood faces former Sheriff Richard Smith in November’s election.