South Carolina was the first state to elect a black state supreme court justice, just five years after the end of the Civil War. But many legislators say the state is stalled — with only two black men and zero black women elected to the state’s top court since then.
And on the state’s second highest court, the Court of Appeals, only three black men and zero black women have been elected since the court’s creation in 1983.
South Carolina is one of only two states in the nation that elects judges in a legislative vote.
About 20 black legislators walked out out of the S.C. House of Representatives in protest Wednesday when a white attorney, Blake Hewitt, beat S.C. Circuit Court Judge Alison Lee in an election for a Court of Appeals seat, The State newspaper reported.
State Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, said Lee, a Circuit Court Judge with 20 years experience, was one of the most qualified candidates he’s seen for appellate court.
“The only reason she did not win the election, in my opinion, is because of her color of skin,” King said. “Had she been a white female with those same credentials, she would have been your judge on the appellate court today.”
Lee was nominated to a U.S. District Court judgeship by President Barrack Obama in June 2013, but her nomination was later withdrawn after Republican U.S. senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham objected to the nomination. Concerns about Lee’s judicial record focused on two cases in 2013 where Lee released two men on bond who were later charged for separate murder charges.
Lee is an S.C. Circuit Court Judge, one of four black women to currently hold the position.
The number of white men serving as SC Circuit Court judges vastly outpaces the number of black judges. There are 45 white men, three black men and four black women.
King said with Lee’s defeat Wednesday, there’s still never been a black woman elected to the state Court of Appeals or to the state Supreme Court.
“I believe what we experienced was a true definition of what racism looks like in the political arena in South Carolina and in our country,” King said.
South Carolina elected the first black state supreme court justice in the U.S during Reconstruction.
Justice Jonathan Jasper Wright served on the state Supreme Court in 1870 until he was forced out, according to the South Carolina Department of Education’s African American History calendar website.
Since then, only two black judges have been elected by the legislature to the state’s top court: the state’s first black Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney Jr., and current S.C. Chief Justice Donald Beatty.
Finney was S.C.’s first black Circuit Court judge, The State reported at his death in 2017.
King said South Carolina legislators must take a hard look at the judicial system. He said keeping judicial elections in the legislature takes the vote away from the people of South Carolina.
“I’m sick and tired of the good ol’ boys system,” King said. “I’m sick and tired of my constituents not having a voice in the process, and the black legislators being shut out.”
This isn’t the first time South Carolina’s method for selecting judges has been questioned.
In 2015, after a heated race for a seat on the state’s Administrative Law Court, then-Gov. Nikki Haley criticized the election as an example of nepotism, The State reported.
State Sen. Wes Climer, R-York, has been outspoken for change. He said the current system allows lawyer-legislators to appoint judges who will later oversee their cases.
“The whole system is corrupt,” Climer said. “It’s inherently corrupt. In my view the governor should appoint them. The General Assembly should offer advice and consent.”
But Climer said he believes anyone who selects a judge based on race or sex — or favoring black women for advancement — is being racist and sexist.
“It is racist and sexist to make decisions on the basis of race and sex, “Climer said. “And I’ll say this, the only thing that matters to me is ideology and temperament. I will always vote for the conservative judge.”
King said South Carolina needs to give higher priority to diversity in all aspects of state government in order to attract new businesses and help the state to continue growing.
“We are interested in making sure that South Carolinians can be proud to travel this world and say that they’re from South Carolina,” he said.
King said he plans to introduce a bill in the next few weeks to examine the way South Carolina elects judges, and possibly begin to change that system.
“As we look at criminal justice reform, I think you have to look at the way South Carolina elects judges,” he said. “And I believe we should give that voice to the people of South Carolina, because the good ol’ boys can’t do it anymore. They’re not doing it fair or doing it right. They’re advancing their friends and their own agendas.”