COLUMBIA -- A third of South Carolina's magistrates are in a special "holdover" status -- several going on more than 10 years, which, critics say, gives state senators too much control over them.
Under state law, magistrates are nominated by their county's Senate delegation, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the full Senate.
By law, senators can't remove magistrates once they are appointed to four-year terms; only the S.C. Supreme Court has that authority.
But the law allows senators to keep magistrates on indefinitely after their four-year terms expire. That allows senators to fire magistrates whenever they wish during the "holdover" period.
Critics say that gives senators too much influence over the state's 314 magistrates, especially senator-attorneys who practice before the magistrates they nominate.
"It's an enormous conflict of interest," Joel Sawyer, Gov. Mark Sanford's spokesman, said last week. "You can't tell me that doesn't influence his decision -- a magistrate presiding over a senator's case, knowing he can be fired by that senator the next day."
Magistrates handle the vast majority of minor criminal and civil cases in the state. Those cases include speeding tickets and other traffic cases, criminal cases that carry a maximum jail sentence of 30 days, and lawsuits involving disputed amounts of $7,500 or less. They also set bail for most crimes and issue search and arrest warrants.
The magistrates earn $33,868 to $70,962 a year, depending on their county and years of service. Under state law, magistrates don't need a law degree.
"I don't favor keeping them in holdover status," S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal told The State newspaper in a recent interview. "It leaves a suggestion of pressure on the judiciary."
Toal said she has "encouraged the Senate leadership many times to get magistrates reappointed."
The State newspaper's analysis of S.C. Judicial Department records found that:
• Of 314 magistrates, 107, or 34 percent, are on holdover status.
• In seven counties, all of the magistrates are on holdover status.
• Spartanburg has the most magistrates on holdover status with 18, followed by Orangeburg with 11, Berkeley with nine and Lexington with eight. Richland and Kershaw counties have none.
• More than half of the magistrates held over have been in that situation for more than two years. Four have been held over for more than 10 years.
• Seven of 12 state senators who are also attorneys are elected from counties where at least half of the magistrates are in holdover status.
John Crangle, the attorney-director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, said the practice has been a "serious problem" for "years and years."
"It undermines the independence of a magistrate," he said. "Any time you have any part of the judicial branch becoming the fiefdom of a senator, it becomes open to abuse."
But state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, whose district includes Spartanburg County, said he thinks "it's a good practice."
"If you had a rotten apple, a judge not doing his job, you shouldn't have to wait four years," said Peeler, who is not an attorney. "If you ask the magistrates ... they will tell you they aren't concerned about it because they feel they are doing a good job."
Cherokee County Magistrate Franklin Crocker, who was nominated by Peeler, said he isn't concerned that he has been in holdover status since April 30, 1998. Crocker is one of four magistrates statewide, including two in Cherokee, who have been held over for at least 10 years.
"That's just the way the senator chooses to do it, and I don't have any problem with it," Crocker said. "If I'm not doing my job, he'll get rid of me."
No 'evil motive'
Chief Justice Toal said she's not aware of any senator trying to take advantage of a magistrate's tenuous employment status.
"I don't think there is any evil motive or hidden intent," she said. "I just don't think they've gotten to (renominating the magistrate)."
Some magistrates agree.
"I've never in my whole career had a senator or a House member ask me to do something about a ticket," said Aiken County Chief Magistrate Rodger Edmonds, president of the S.C. Summary Court Judges Association.
But Sanford's spokesman, Sawyer, said state Sen. Randy Scott, R-Dorchester, told members of the governor's staff last year that "I like to keep those folks on a short leash," referring to a Dorchester County magistrate he wanted to keep in holdover status.
"He may have been joking," Sawyer said. "But it was something, frankly, that we viewed as incredibly inappropriate."
Contacted last week, Scott said he never made the "short leash" remark to the governor's office, and he has never tried to improperly influence any judge.
(Scott was charged with drunken driving in April. A Richland County magistrate not on holdover status was assigned to Scott's case and dismissed the charges against the senator in May.)
Still, Scott said he supports keeping magistrates in holdover status in certain cases. He cited several instances in which magistrates in his Senate district whom he declined to name used profanity while on the job, showed up late for work or "berated" a speeding violator while holding court.
"I certainly don't want somebody on the payroll for four years who's not doing a good job," Scott said.
Six of seven Dorchester County magistrates are in holdover status, The State newspaper's review found. Scott, who lost his re-election bid last month, said he recently recommended to the governor's office that all six be reappointed "because they're good magistrates."
Conflict of interest?
Sawyer said Gov. Sanford especially is concerned about senator-lawyers practicing before their home-county magistrates whose terms have expired.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, a criminal defense attorney, said he does not try to influence any of the 11 magistrates in holdover status in his county. Hutto said under court rulings, it's not a conflict of interest for him to practice before the magistrates that he nominates.
"They have a job to do, which is to dispense justice, and I have a job to do, which is to represent my client," he said. "The judges aren't doing anything wrong, and the lawyers aren't doing anything wrong, and the senators aren't doing anything wrong."
The State newspaper's analysis found Hutto is one of seven senator-attorneys whose district includes counties in which at least half of the magistrates are in holdover status.
The other six senator-lawyers are: Chip Campsen, R-Charleston; John Hawkins, R-Spartanburg; John Land, D-Clarendon; Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington; Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg; and Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.