South Carolina editorial roundup: Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022


Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

Post and Courier

Sept. 7

S.C. court needs to tackle tougher problems, too

In a world where civility in the public square seems to have become quaint, and in some circles contemptible, it's encouraging that the S.C. Supreme Court is determined to enforce it in the legal profession - both inside and outside of the courtroom.

As The Post and Courier's Eric Connor reports, the high court took one of the strongest actions it ever takes against judges when it issued an all-too-rare public reprimand last week against Greenwood Magistrate Walter Rutledge Martin for cursing at a lawyer and yelling at a clerk.

Although the unanimous court noted that Judge Martin immediately apologized in both cases, and in one case reported himself to judicial disciplinary officials, it also noted that he had been publicly reprimanded in 2012 for cursing at a defendant. The court found that his latest conduct constituted "misconduct" that "warrants a public reprimand." It also ordered him to complete 20 more hours of anger management counseling (he had already undergone some, on his own) and possibly more if the counselor believes it's needed.

The latest reprimand comes barely more than a year after the court stripped a Mount Pleasant attorney of the right to practice law for six months because of racist, misogynist screeds on a public Facebook page where he identified himself as an attorney. In that case, the court said the posts "tended to bring the legal profession into disrepute and violated the letter and spirit of the Lawyer's Oath" to "maintain the dignity of the legal system."

We don't mean to imply that enforcing civility should be the high court's chief concern in its role as the head of the state's judicial system; far from it. Rather, we believe that some type of censure is appropriate and that a public reprimand - that is: words, with no actual penalty attached - should be the bottom-level punishment the court doles out against errant judges. A public reprimand should not be an occurrence that is so rare that it merits news coverage whenever it happens.

Unfortunately, it seems to be. Although the court has been known to suspend a lower-court judge for particularly egregious ethical misconduct, that's the far-more-rare exception of a punishment that actually punishes. Its go-to public response to judicial misconduct is the reprimand. More common, apparently, is the even less punitive private reprimand - a "letter of caution," as it's called - or doing nothing at all.

That 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's more important for the court to guard the integrity of our judicial system - whose effectiveness is based on public confidence - by calling out judges who sidestep or ignore their ethical duties to treat all people fairly, to keep their personal opinions to themselves and to both be impartial and preserve the appearance of impartiality.

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

In 2019, The Post and Courier reported that not one of the more than 1,000 ethics complaints filed against S.C. Circuit Court judges in the previous two decades had resulted in any sort of real - that is, public - punishment. 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 who are upset about the outcome of their cases. But as then-Rep. Gary Clary, himself a former circuit judge, said at the time: "That defies the law of probability. You would have to say the system is built to protect judges."

There are two obvious ways the system does that: by giving judges control over the disciplinary process and by operating in secret. What's happened in the three years since that report underscores the need for reform: The complaints have continued to pour in against judges, and the number of circuit judges who were even reprimanded - not suspended, not in any other way disciplined, simply given a public slap on the wrist - remains at zero.

Even lower-court judges are able to get by without any sort of public punishment if they refuse to admit that what they did was wrong, as we've seen most recently in the case of the municipal judge who admitted commingling money owed to others with her own money and then not using it as agreed to pay off back taxes.

Yes, it's easier to make a case against a judge who admits wrongdoing - particularly one who self-reports that wrongdoing. But it's usually more important to make a case against judges who insist on their innocence when they have in fact engaged in conduct that undermines the integrity of the judiciary.

The Times and Democrat

Aug. 26

Real danger is to sharks, not from them

Shark attacks always make news.

Most recent is the story from Myrtle Beach involving two swimmers being bitten by sharks.

Both were attacked on Aug. 15, with one suffering a serious injury to the forearm and the second a more glancing bite to the leg. The attacks happened in the ocean about a half-mile apart, and police told media outlets there is no way to know if they are related.

Karen Sites of Pittsburgh needed hundreds of stitches. She told WPDE-TV she was in waist-deep water on her first day of vacation with her 8-year-old grandson when she was bitten on the arm.

"I just felt something, I guess, bite me, and there was a shark on my arm," Sites said.

Shark attacks on humans are extremely rare. While millions of people enjoyed the water, just 47 shark bites were reported at beaches in the U.S. in 2021, according to the International Shark Attack File maintained by the University of Florida, as reported by The Associated Press.

Four shark attacks were reported in South Carolina in 2021. Florida led the nation with 28, the group said.

South Carolina is third among 23 coastal states over a decade for the number of shark attacks, according to SafeWise, which looked at 20 years of data from the Global Shark Attack File.

The state has not had a fatal shark attack since 1883, according to statistics from the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 91 million people swim in the ocean, lakes and rivers. Only about 44 people are attacked by sharks each year.

Many encounters with sharks are the result of mistaken identity. When the shark realizes it has bitten something other than a fish or other ocean prey, it most often lets go.

No matter, the fear of being bitten or killed by a shark is an irrationally terrible one for humans. And it is that fear that often prompts the wrong reaction.

Man is killing sharks at a rate millions of times greater than sharks are injuring man. Though sharks killed four people in 2018, people killed about 100 million sharks that year. Most sharks are killed by commercial fishermen for their fins and flesh.

So great is the danger to the shark population that regulations on shark fishing in South Carolina waters are more stringent than the average fisherman realizes, with catch limits on some and no-catch rules on many. The regulations are necessary.

Repeating a quote from The Bellingham (Wash.) Herald: "Allowing man-made hysteria to overrule regulations set into place to conserve these valuable members of the ecosystem would be a horrible mistake. Too often, our first response is to eradicate anything that causes us fear or trouble. …Leave regulations in place and help conserve what is left of our wild world."

Post and Courier

Aug. 31

Legislature should take a big bite out of S.C. doughnut holes

File this under a picture is worth a thousand words, with a hearty thanks to a couple of Columbia reporters for a great illustration of what's wrong with South Carolina's annexation laws.

After The State's Bristow Marchant tweeted out a picture of West Columbia's new election districts, The Associated Press' Jeffrey Collins crystallized what we were actually seeing: "South Carolina with its high hurdle for annexation and donut holes."

If you look smack dab in the middle of the map, where it says District 5, you'll see the clearest example of what Mr. Collins was referring to. That's not a separate district. That's what we call a doughnut hole: a tract of land surrounded by a city that is not itself part of the city. Look closer, and you'll see four other doughnut holes below it and, depending on how you define a doughnut hole and how you define just bizarre city boundaries, three or four more in District 6 in the upper left. (The black-and-white version of the map isn't as clear as the color version, which you can see if you go to and click on this editorial.)

Doughnut holes are a logistical nightmare for city and county officials, who have to backtrack around them to pick up garbage, fill in potholes and provide other local services. They're a danger to public safety because police and firefighters have to figure out who's supposed to respond when there's an emergency inside of them. And of course, by burdening officials and endangering lives, they drive up the cost of government.

The reason we have so many of them throughout the state is completely political:

- South Carolinians don't like authority, and being part of a town or city means one more government gets to tell you what you can't do: You can't open a 24/7 convenience store in the middle of a quiet residential street. Or a strip club. Your band can't blare its music at ear-splitting levels all night in that same neighborhood. And of course, you often have to pay higher taxes for the extra services. So legislators don't want to risk angering people by making it easier for cities and towns to grow naturally as population growth turns rural and suburban areas into urban sprawl.

- The Legislature created special-purpose districts to provide specific urban services back when counties had no power, and these districts don't want to lose their business to more efficient municipalities, so they have amassed significant political power to fight annexation reforms.

- And of course there are the legislators themselves, many of whom don't like the idea of anybody except legislators having any power, so they're just fine with limiting the jurisdiction of city officials.

Doughnut holes are only the most obvious example of why our state needs to give cities and towns greater leeway to annex land that is adjacent to the city and has a high enough population density that it needs municipal services. Many residents just outside municipal boundaries still take advantage of municipal services, such as parks; they just don't pay for them. That disparity places an extra burden on city residents to pick up the tab for their neighbors, through property taxes and business license fees.

It also makes government for everyone a little more expensive, because people who live near cities still want their own city services. So counties end up providing services that county governments weren't designed to provide, even to residents who live in remote areas.

Many states allow cities to annex adjacent property once it reaches a certain "urban density." But South Carolina invites people to remain outside the taxation and zoning jurisdiction of a city while taking advantage of its benefits: Property owners or residents must agree to be annexed, even when they're encircled by a city. Either three-quarters of property owners have to sign a petition requesting annexation or else a quarter of the residents can request an annexation referendum, which voters must approve, and large landowners can opt out.

We'd like to see the Legislature adopt the urban density approach, so city boundaries reflect the reality of city life. But lawmakers at least should give cities an easier option for closing up the doughnut holes. A 2020 proposal that never got off the ground would let a city annex tracts of up to 25 acres - about half the size of the College of Charleston campus - that have been completely surrounded by the city for at least five years. It's a fair approach that's unlikely to get any traction next year either.

But now maybe you understand a little better why it's needed.