The normally dull election of judges by the S.C. General Assembly’s 170 lawmakers erupted into a bitter protest Wednesday as black lawmakers staged a walkout, decrying “racism” by their white colleagues.
The allegations of discrimination underscored the fault lines along race in S.C. politics.
“Shame on South Carolina. Racism still lives here!” state Rep. John King, D-York, said as he joined about 20 other African-Americans in exiting the S.C. House. “Until we cure what is happening in our State House, we can’t expect our citizens to do any better.”
The sudden walkout took place after attorney Blake Hewitt beat longtime S.C. Circuit Court Judge Alison Lee, 87-73, for a seat on the S.C. Court of Appeals. It was Lee’s sixth attempt for a Court of Appeals seat.
Hewitt is white, and Lee is African-American.
If Hewitt had been black, running against a white judge with 20 years of judicial experience, which Lee has, the white judge would have won, Rep. King said. “My white colleagues would have said, ‘They (the black candidate) are not qualified.’ “
Most of the 44 judicial posts filled Wednesday were filled by candidates running unopposed.
However, in another contested race, Jessica Salvini, 43, beat Kimaka Nichols-Graham, 46, for a Greenville County Family Court seat. It was the first try by Salvini, who is white, for a Family Court seat but she had run unsuccessfully for a Circuit Court seat. Nichols-Graham, who is African-American, had run four times previously for Family Court.
“I just know it’s really very difficult to get highly qualified female African-American candidates elected,” said state Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, who joined her black colleagues in walking out of the House chamber while voting on uncontested judgeships still was going on.
The job of judge is one of South Carolina’s most coveted, prestigious public jobs. The posts pay well and offer generous retirement benefits. A Court of Appeals judge, for instance, is paid $145,074 a year, and Family Court judges are paid $137,634 a year. Once elected, judges rarely are ousted.
Hewitt, 40, of Conway, is a respected appellate lawyer who had elite jobs clerking with former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and U.S. District Court Judge Joe Anderson. He has run twice before for the Court of Appeals.
Lee, 60, of Columbia, is well respected. But she has been criticized for releasing on bond two young men, charged with serious crimes. Both later were charged with murder, including one convicted in the 2013 slaying of Columbia bagel baker Kelly Hunnewell.
Lee’s supporters say state Circuit Court judges have to make quick decisions about whether to release defendants on bond, often without in-depth information on the dangers they might pose.
Candidates to be a judge are screened by a committee of state senators and representatives. That panel decides which candidates are qualified, allowing them to run. The “voters” are the 170 lawmakers in the General Assembly, who meet in a joint session.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who joined Wednesday’s brief walkout, said it was “disturbing that a qualified African-American candidate sitting on the Circuit Court bench can’t get elected to the Court of Appeals over someone who is qualified but has never been a judge before.”
Only one of nine Court of Appeals judges is African-American.
In a speech to the joint session of the House and Senate, state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, decried the lack of diversity in the panel that screens judicial candidates and called for change.
“Is that fair to all of South Carolina? If we allow this to go on now, what happens next time?” she said.
Asked about criticisms of his election, Hewitt said, “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, I suppose. But I was really fortunate to get to run with Judge Lee twice. I think nothing but the highest of her.”
Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, an attorney, said said both candidates were “eminently qualified. Alison Lee is one of the top trial judges in the state in my opinion, and Blake Hewitt is one of the top appellate lawyers.”
Smith, who is vice-chair of the committee that screens judicial candidates, said he didn’t think black candidates were discriminated against.
“If you look over the past, we have elected African-Americans,” Smith said. “This was just one election where we did not elect any African-Americans to the two contested races.”
Smith said he would encourage Lee and Nichols-Graham to run again. “They are eminently qualified, and they have a bright future on the bench in South Carolina.”
Asked at a press conference what role race played in the defeat of the two black candidates, Sen. Matthews said that, on a scale of 1 to 10, race ranked a “10” in its importance.
Matthews also criticized some female lawmakers for not voting for Lee in the Court of Appeals race. “Where were they?”