Earlier this month, South Carolina’s General Assembly elected nearly two dozen judges to preside over cases across the state’s court system. No African Americans were selected for the judgeships. Instead, most of them were granted to white men, a fact that once again highlighted the state’s diversity problem, according to Black lawmakers who bristled at the legislative vote.
“What this says to me is if you’re African American, do not apply,” state Rep. Leon Howard (D-Columbia) told Atlanta Black Star this week.
While Howard was outraged by the Feb. 3 elections, he was not surprised. He said South Carolina has had a dearth of Black judges since he was first elected in 1995.
But Howard recognized how critical it is to reverse that long trend to keep young Black men from going before so many overly conservative judges.
“It’s not good to have too much of one thing either way,” Howard explained. “I think when people go to court, they at least want to see somebody that looks like them in order to get justice. Because everybody that goes to court is not guilty. And so I think African-Americans going to courtrooms and you see nothing but white males on the bench, they could feel like justice may not be rendered.”
South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states whose legislatures elect judges for the administrative law, appeals, circuit and family courts. South Carolina lawmakers also choose the state’s Supreme Court justices.
The state has hundreds of judges, and the annual elections replenish those cycled out by retirements, and state-mandated age restrictions and other departures.
White candidates were either elected or re-elected for all 22 seats during the Feb. 3 races. White men prevailed in 17 of them.
Eighteen of the elections were for circuit court seats, while three were assigned to court of appeals, the second-highest court in the state.
Many of the races were not contested. But four Black women who vied to be assigned to the bench either lost their bids or withdrew for lack of support on the day of the votes. Circuit Court Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, the wife of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, was defeated in her quest to become an appeals court judge. The Legislature chose Family Court Judge Jay Vinson instead.
Chief Justice Don Beatty, a Black man, is the highest-ranking member of the state’s court systems. But in the hierarchy under him, only one of nine judges on the Court of Appeals is Black and just 15 percent of the judges on the supreme, appeals or circuit courts are African-American, The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston reported. Black people make up 27 percent of the state’s population, U.S. Census number show.
“I’m not prepared to say anybody was racist,” State Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson told The Post and Courier. “I’m not prepared to say racism played a part, but I’m prepared to say it doesn’t look right and something is going on here.”
It’s not the first time South Carolina lawmakers have been criticized for their judicial selections. In February 2019, about 20 members of the Legislative Black Caucus stormed out of the State House in disgust after the Legislature elected Blake Hewitt, a white attorney with no experience as a judge, to the Court of Appeals over Circuit Court Judge Alison Lee, a long-tenured Black woman.
“They brought him [Hewitt] in from the street,” Howard said. “They did not make him a magistrate or circuit court judge. They put this white man on the second-highest court in the state, and he had no judicial experience. Alison Lee had 20-plus years of experience and was just waiting to ascend to the next level. And they knocked her off because she was a Black woman.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, chairman of the 10-member selection commission the state uses to screen judicial candidates before the Legislature votes, defended the process to The Associated Press.
“Each candidate is given the opportunity to campaign, to prevail upon the majority of 169 of us as to their merits and as compared to the others,” Rankin said. “So the criticism that this was not a diverse group doesn’t speak to the work of our committee, it speaks to each candidate’s own strengths.”
Howard said Democrats celebrated the party’s strides on the national stage in the November, with victories in the White House and both houses of Congress.
But the same has not been true in South Carolina. Democrats lost a handful of seats in both the state’s legislative chambers. That put state Republicans just two votes shy of a super-majority in the House and one vote short in the senate.
“They’re showing us, with the backlash, that they run South Carolina,” Howard said. “Elections have consequences. And this is a consequence of the Democrats losing so much ground in South Carolina.”
Howard said Blacks are also underrepresented on university boards and in corporate leadership positions across the state. Meanwhile, he pointed to a so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill that South Carolina House passed overwhelmingly on Feb. 17, which essentially outlaws all abortions in the state if the governor signs off on it.
“The only way to turn the tide is at the ballot box,” he said. “We’re doing all we can do. The public is going to have to do the rest.”