Bills would change state's legal practices

Lancaster's Mulvaney co-sponsors bills

COLUMBIA -- Two S.C. House bills have been pre-filed in the wake of the bar exam controversy that would radically change who controls the legal profession in the state.

Under the bills, sponsored by Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, a 13-member commission under the control of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation would regulate the licensing and disciplining of lawyers.

The state constitution gives that authority to the S.C. Supreme Court. One of the bills calls for a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to transfer that authority to the state licensing department, which is part of the executive branch.

The other bill sets out the election and duties of the commission.

"We feel there needs to be a transparent level of accountability," said Rep. Ted Pitts, R-Lexington, a real estate broker who is a co-sponsor of both bills. "We are not trying to take shots at the Supreme Court. We just think there should be a different way for the legal professional to be overseen."

Crawford said he talked about the bills, which were pre-filed Wednesday, with other members of the House Judiciary Committee before the bar exam issue, though he added the controversy "sort of put a burner under it."

"This isn't about the General Assembly taking over the practice of law," said Crawford, a physician. "It transfers the practice of law to lawyers in the state of South Carolina as a whole, not to five people (on the Supreme Court) who are elected by members of the General Assembly."

In every state, the regulation of lawyers ultimately falls under the control of that state's top court, according to the American Bar Association. Pitts said the bills call for a "better system than currently is in place, and that includes all other states."

The bills' other co-sponsor is Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Lancaster, a real estate developer who is a licensed N.C. attorney, though he no longer practices law there.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal declined to comment on specifics of the bills Friday: "I look forward to discussing my views and the views of the court on the bills when the Legislature sets the bills for discussion in committee."

She said as a former state lawmaker, she was very much involved with developing the present oversight system.

"I think a very thorough look has been taken at our system, and I think it's a very good system," she said.