SC judicial elections leaves bench mostly white, male amid diversity concerns

The state’s bench remains mostly white and male after judicial elections by state lawmakers, despite concerns over the lack of diversity among South Carolina judges.

During a joint session between the state Senate and House to elect state judges on Wednesday, most elections were uneventful except for two, including one where the Richland County Democratic delegation fought to preserve James Smith’s candidacy for Seat 1 in the 5th Judicial Circuit.

Smith, 56, a decorated war veteran and democrat, formerly served in the House for 22-years before losing a race for governor in 2018 to Gov. Henry McMaster.

Originally, Smith was vying for the circuit court against Justin Williams, who dropped out of the race in January due to a lack of pledges to support his candidacy. Although the lone candidate, Smith’s candidacy became controversial after a social media post by an S.C. congressman. U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-SC, posted on the social media platform X that Smith is “Pro abortion, Pro Biden agenda, Pro big government, Pro BLM!!” and indicated Republicans should not vote for him.

On Wednesday, Smith was rejected by Republican lawmakers after House Majority Leader David Hiott, R-Pickens, moved to recommit the seat back to the Judicial Merit Selection Committee.

The move spurred uproar in the House chamber as Richland County democrats scurried to raise procedural objections to Hiott’s motion, including state Rep. Seth Rose, D-Richland and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.

“The motion to reject the slate is out of order given the unprecedented nature of this motion,” Rose said. “There is only one nominee and this is a simple up or down vote.”

Rutherford challenged Hiott’s motion by identifying that Hiott incorrectly referred to the JMSC as the JSMC.

“The motion was to recommit the slate to the Judicial Selection Merit Commission, there is no such body, so if we’re going to vote on something we should vote on the proper motion, which would be the Judicial Merit Selection Commission,” Rutherford said. “Now we can send it back to JSMC, but that doesn’t exist so, before we vote, the motion would be that it go back to the proper committee.”

Following a failed vote to kill Hiott’s motion, the General Assembly approved leaving the seat in 5th Judicial Circuit vacant.

In what, at times, appeared to be a haphazard election process, with confusion over rules governing joint sessions, lawmakers elected or reelected six women and three African Americans among 31 candidates.

In the race for Seat 9 on the Court of Appeals, multiple ballots were required, where Whitney Harrison of Columbia, Judge Jan Bromell Holmes of Georgetown and Judge Matthew Price Turner, of Laurens were up for consideration. Following the second ballot, JMSC Chairman Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, announced that Harrison, a white woman, withdrew from the race. In the third round, Turner prevailed against Holmes, a Black woman, who currently sits on the family court for the 15th Judicial Circuit.

Late last year, some state officials, including Supreme Court Justice John Kittredge, who was recently elected to replace Don Beatty as chief justice, levied concerns over a lack of diversity on the bench.

“We have a great bench,” Kittredge told lawmakers last December. “We have a great system. But if it doesn’t reflect the people of South Carolina, we are going to lose the respect and integrity by the public we serve.

Kittredge said there are three African American judges who soon will retire due to the state’s mandatory retirement age of 72, including Beatty and Circuit Judges Clifton Newman and Alex Kinlaw. Kittredge also noted Judge Casey Manning, who retired late last year.

“Losing those four within an 18-month period is a hit,” Kittredge said. “It’s a hit on the intellectual institutional knowledge that they have brought to the system, and it’s a hit in terms of diversity. I’m concerned about that.”

David Pascoe, solicitor for the 1st Circuit, and a major player in the state’s efforts to pass judicial reform, also, last year, shared Kittredge’s concerns about a lack of diversity on the bench.

“A major reason I am personally calling for reform is because of the lack of diversity on the bench,” Pascoe said. “Look at what the current process has gotten our state. We currently have no women on our Supreme Court, and come this July we will have no person of color. It is insanity for anyone not to support reform for the good of our state.”

With more than two dozen judicial seats on the ballot, here’s a snapshot of who won judicial seats.

Court of Appeals

Seat 8: Jerry Deese Vinson, Jr. of Florence; Seat 9: Matthew Price Turner.

Circuit Court

2nd Judicial Circuit Seat 2: Martha M. Rivers Davisson, of Aiken;

3rd Judicial Circuit Seat 1: Judge S. Bryan Doby, of Bishopville.

3rd Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge Kristi Fisher Curtis, of Sumter.

4th Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge Michael S. Holt, of Hartsville.

5th Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge Daniel McLeod Coble, of Columbia

7th Judicial Circuit Seat 1

J. Derham Cole, Jr., of Spartanburg.

7th Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge Grace Gilchrist Knie, of Campobello.

8th Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge Eugene Cannon Griffith, Jr., of Prosperity.

9th Judicial Circuit Seat 4

Judge Dale E. Van Slambrook, of Goose Creek.

10th Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge R. Scott Sprouse, of Walhalla.

11th Judicial Circuit Seat 1

Judge William Paul Keesley, of Edgefield.

11th Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge Walton J. McLeod, IV, of Columbia.

12th Judicial Circuit Seat 1

Judge Michael G. Nettles, of Florence.

13th Judicial Circuit Seat 2

Judge Jessica Ann Salvini, of Greenville.

13th Judicial Circuit Seat 4

Vernon F. Dunbar, of Greenville.

14th Judicial Circuit Seat 1

Judge Robert Bonds, of Walterboro.

14th Judicial Circuit Seat 3

Judge Marvin Dukes, III, of Beaufort.

15th Judicial Circuit Seat 3

David Pierce Caraker, Jr., of Myrtle Beach.

At-Large Seat 4

William C. McMaster, III, of Greenville.

At-Large Seat 8

T. William “Billy” McGee, III, of Columbia.

At-Large Seat 11

Judge Milton G. Kimpson, of Columbia.

At-Large Seat 16

Charles J. McCutchen, of Orangeburg.

Family Court

1st Judicial Circuit Seat 4

Jerrod A. Anderson, of Orangeburg.

7th Judicial Circuit Seat 4

Pete G. Diamaduros, of Spartanburg.

9th Judicial Circuit Seat 4

Blakely Copeland Cahoon, of Summerville.

9th Judicial Circuit Seat 6

Gina J. McAlhany, of Summerville.

10th Judicial Circuit Seat 1

David J. Brousseau, of Anderson.

16th Judicial Circuit Seat 1

Sammy Diamaduros, of Union.

16th Judicial Circuit Seat 3

R. Chadwick “Chad” Smith, of Rock Hill.

Administrative Law Court Seat 1

Judge Ralph K. Anderson, III, of Columbia.