Votes on dozens of new judges will have to wait in South Carolina


COLUMBIA (AP) — Dozens of open judgeships throughout the South Carolina courts will go unfilled amid an unresolved debate over the state's system of judicial selection.
The South Carolina Senate ended Tuesday without approving a House resolution to set Feb. 7 as the date when both chambers vote to fill upcoming vacancies in the judiciary. That means it will be a while longer before key positions are decided, including the next chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
South Carolina is one of two states where the legislature holds almost complete power in picking judges, as opposed to voters or the governor. Lawmakers consider a pool of up to three candidates who have been deemed qualified by a 10-person Judicial Merit Selection Commission, and candidates must then get a majority of votes during a joint session of the General Assembly.
Some officials have taken aim at the system in the past year, saying it gives undue sway to legislators who also practice law. Critics says it lets "lawyer-legislators" handpick the people who will hear their clients' cases, giving them an unfair advantage in the courtroom and undermining public trust.
Republican Sen. Wes Climer vowed in the fall to block all judicial elections until the General Assembly addresses the issue, citing a need to give a "meaningful role" to the executive branch and curb the influence of "lawyer-legislators."
But he expressed optimism Tuesday that changes will be made before the session ends in May.
"Then the question about when and whether we have judicial elections goes by the wayside," Climer told the Associated Press.
A Senate committee discussed a slate of bills in the afternoon that would restructure the Judicial Merit Selection Commission and empower the governor.
A House subcommittee released 16 recommendations last week, including adding appointments from the governor to the screening commission and establishing term limits for its members.
Notably, to some lawmakers, the list did not mention removing "lawyer-legislators" from the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.
"What we're trying to do is craft something that can move the ball forward and be successful at the same time," Republican Rep. Tommy Pope, who chaired the group, said last month.