Sen. Peeler defends magistrate 'holdover' status provision
The State newspaper of Columbia reported Sunday that 107 of the state's 314 magistrates, or 34 percent, are on what's called holdover status.
State law says that a county's Senate delegation nominates magistrates, who are then appointed by the governor and confirmed by the full Senate. Once magistrates are appointed to four-year terms, only the S.C. Supreme Court can remove them.
But the law allows senators to keep magistrates on indefinitely after their four-year terms expire. That allows senators to fire magistrates whenever they wish during the ''holdover'' period.
State Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, whose district includes Spartanburg County, defended the holdover provision.
''If you had a rotten apple a judge not doing his job you shouldn't have to wait four years,'' said Peeler, who is not an attorney. ''If you ask the magistrates ... they will tell you they aren't concerned about it because they feel they are doing a good job.''
Cherokee County Magistrate Franklin Crocker, whom Peeler nominated, said he isn't concerned that he has been in holdover status since April 30, 1998.
''That's just the way the senator chooses to do it, and I don't have any problem with it,'' Crocker said. ''If I'm not doing my job, he'll get rid of me.''
Critics say that gives senators too much influence over the state's 314 magistrates, especially in cases where senators are also attorneys who practice before the magistrates they nominate.
''It's an enormous conflict of interest,'' Joel Sawyer, Gov. Mark Sanford's spokesman, told the newspaper last week. ''You can't tell me that doesn't influence his decision a magistrate presiding over a senator's case knowing he can be fired by that senator the next day.''
Among magistrates' duties is handling the vast majority of minor criminal and civil cases in the state. Those cases include speeding tickets and other traffic cases, criminal cases that carry a maximum jail sentence of 30 days, and lawsuits involving disputed amounts of $7,500 or less. They also set bail for most crimes and issue search and arrest warrants.
The magistrates earn $33,868 to $70,962 a year, depending on their county and years of service. State law doesn't require that they hold a law degree.
''I don't favor keeping them in holdover status,'' S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said. ''It leaves a suggestion of pressure on the judiciary.''
But she said she's not aware of any senator trying to take advantage of a magistrate's holdover status.
''I don't think there is any evil motive or hidden intent,'' she said. ''I just don't think they've gotten to (renominating the magistrate).''
The State newspaper's analysis of S.C. Judicial Department records found that:
- All magistrates are on holdover status in seven counties.
- Spartanburg has the most magistrates on holdover status with 18, followed by Orangeburg with 11, Berkeley with nine and Lexington with eight. Richland and Kershaw counties have none.
- More than half of the magistrates held over have been in that situation for more than two years. Four have been held over for more than 10 years.
- Seven of 12 state senators who are also attorneys are elected from counties where at least half of the magistrates are in holdover status.
The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the dismissal of 10 drunken driving tickets, written by a state trooper, by an Orangeburg County magistrate on holdover status.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, DOrangeburg, a criminal defense attorney, was the defense attorney in those cases. Magistrate Willie Robinson's signature appears on each ticket labeled ''not guilty,'' according to copies of the tickets obtained by The State newspaper under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Hutto said he did nothing wrong. ''When you know the truth, you'll know it's not even true,'' he said.
Efforts to reach Robinson were unsuccessful. His term as a magistrate expired in April 2007, but he has remained on the job in holdover status, court records show.