Editorial Summary: South Carolina


Post and courier. September 7, 2022.

Editorial: SC magistrate’s rebuke is encouraging, but court needs to tackle tougher issues

In a world where civility in the public square seems to have become quaint and, in some circles, despicable, it is heartening that the SC Supreme Court is determined to enforce it in the legal profession, both within and outside outside the courtroom.

As Eric Connor of the Post and Courier reports, the High Court took one of the strongest action it has ever taken against judges when it issued an all-too-rare public rebuke last week against the Greenwood magistrate Walter Rutledge Martin for insulting a lawyer and shouting at a clerk.

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Although the unanimous court noted that Judge Martin immediately apologized in both cases and, in one case, reported himself to judicial discipline officials, it also noted that he was publicly reprimanded in 2012. for insulting an accused. The court concluded that his latest conduct constituted “misconduct” which “deserved public reprimand”. He also ordered him to take an additional 20 hours of anger management counseling (he had already taken some, on his own), and possibly more if the counselor deems it necessary.

The latest reprimand comes just over a year after the court barred a Mount Pleasant lawyer from practicing law for six months over racist and misogynistic screeds on a public Facebook page where he identified himself. as a lawyer. In that case, the court said the posts “tended to discredit the legal profession and violated the letter and spirit of the attorney’s oath” to “maintain the dignity of the legal system.”

We do not mean that the enforcement of civility should be the primary concern of the High Court in its role as head of the state judicial system; far from there. Rather, we believe that some type of censure is appropriate and that a public rebuke – that is, words, with no real sanction attached – should be the low-level punishment the court hands out to errant judges. A public rebuke shouldn’t be such a rare event that it deserves media coverage every time it happens.

Unfortunately, it appears to be. Although the court has been known to suspend a lower court judge for particularly egregious ethical misconduct, it is the much rarer exception to a sentence that actually punishes. His public response to judicial misconduct is reprimand. More common, apparently, is the even less punitive private reprimand – a “warning letter,” as it is called – or doing nothing at all.

It might not be a big deal if the only problem the court faced was the occasional rude judge, but it’s not. As important as civility is, it is even more important that the court preserve the integrity of our judicial system — the effectiveness of which depends on public trust — by challenging judges who circumvent or ignore their ethical duties to deal with all people fairly, to respect their personal opinions obligations to themselves and to both be impartial and maintain the appearance of impartiality.

Unfortunately too, there is no reason to believe the court is doing this – and good reason to believe it is not.

In 2019, The Post and Courier reported that none of the more than 1,000 ethics complaints filed against SC Circuit Court judges over the previous two decades had resulted in any actual sanction, that is- ie public. Not even a public reprimand. Not one.

Now we realize that many, and probably most, complaints against judges are without merit – usually the result of litigants or defendants unhappy with the outcome of their cases. But as then-Rep. Gary Clary, himself a former circuit judge, said at the time: “It defies the law of probability. It should be said that the system is designed to protect judges.

The system achieves this in two obvious ways: by giving judges control of the disciplinary process and by operating in secrecy. What has happened in the three years since that report underscores the need for reform: complaints have continued to pour in against judges, and the number of circuit judges who have even been reprimanded – neither suspended nor disciplined in any other way, merely received a public hearing. tap on the wrist — stays at zero.

Even lower court judges can get by without any form of public punishment if they refuse to admit that what they did was wrong, as we saw recently in the case of the municipal judge who admitted to mixing up money owed to others with his own money and not using it as agreed to pay back taxes.

Yes, it is easier to file a complaint against a judge who admits wrongdoing, especially one who reports that wrongdoing themselves. But it is generally more important to argue against judges who insist on their innocence when they have in fact engaged in conduct that undermines the integrity of the judiciary.

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