COLUMBIA, S.C. — A push is on by top Republican lawmakers in the S.C. House of Representatives to expand the number of justices on the State Supreme Court from five to seven.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, a Republican from Hartsville, is the lead sponsor on a resolution that would, if passed by both the House and Senate, put a proposed amendment to the state Constitution before voters as early as the 2022 general election.
It probably would take up to another year or more after 2022 – if the proposal is approved by voters – for the General Assembly and the Judicial Merit Selection Commission to gear up to select two new justices.
Associate justices are paid $202,057 and usually have two law clerks assigned to them, so the cost in salaries to add two new justices would likely be $500,000 or so.
In a statement, Lucas told The State that, “There are many areas of the state that have never seen or do not currently see representation on the court, including places like Beaufort, Charleston, York and Lexington counties, and the addition of two more justices will ensure a more diverse court in terms of regional representation.
“As the population of South Carolina continues to grow in unprecedented ways, the addition of two justices to our state Supreme Court is an appropriate response,” Lucas said.
Currently three of the five Supreme Court justices are from the Upstate – Chief Justice Don Beatty of Spartanburg, and associate justices John Kittredge and John Cannon Few, both from neighboring Greenville County. Associate Justice Kaye Hearn is from Conway, near Myrtle Beach, and George “Buck” James is from Sumter. No justices are from Columbia or Charleston – two of the state’s major population centers.
The Supreme Court is the same size it was 50 years ago, when the population of South Carolina was 2.5 million. The population is currently approximately 5 million.
A spokeswoman for the S.C. Court Administration, of which Chief Justice Beatty is the administrative head, said Beatty does not comment on legislative matters.
While Beatty might not want to comment, it is possible that he could be summoned to testify before various legislative committees, where lawmakers would pose basic questions, such as: Does the high court’s workload justify having two new justices? And: Is there enough physical space in the current Supreme Court building for two new justices and their clerks?
Observers of the Legislature had questions about Lucas’ proposal.
“I’m just not aware why expanding the Supreme Court would be regarded as necessary at this point,” said Lynn Teague, with the S.C. League of Women Voters. “They don’t seem to be overworked.
“The basic question I have is why? We hope any decisions to change our courts are not related to wishes about outcomes. It is not the business of legislative bodies to try to shape the judiciary to try to shape outcomes.”
John Crangle, who for more than 40 years has studied ethics and corruption in the General Assembly, said he needs more facts before weighing in.
On one hand, Crangle said, the Republican majority General Assembly might want to put known conservatives on the court to counter any “liberal” influences.
But on the other hand, Crangle said, “They (lawmakers) may feel the court is overloaded. The population of the state has doubled ... and the amount of appeals they have has increased dramatically.” Crangle, a lawyer, said he has heard complaints from lawyers that the court does not move fast enough.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Democrat from Richland, said the idea of putting justices on the Supreme Court based on their hometowns didn’t make much sense to him.
“We should be choosing justices based on the quality of their minds – not on where they are from,” he said. “The idea of geographical representation for the Supreme Court has no rational basis.”
In his statement, Lucas also said that most other states, “including almost all Southeastern states ... have either seven or nine justices. This change will bring a greater diversity of ideas and perspective that is much more representative of South Carolina as it is today and as it will be in the future.”
The proposal was introduced in the Legislature last month, two months after the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an effort by Gov. Henry McMaster, a conservative Republican, to funnel COVID-19 relief funds to help private school students pay their tuition.
McMaster could not be reached for comment.
On the national level last year, after the death of U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, some Democrats raised the possibility of adding more justices to the nine-member court to counter the conservative tilt that Amy Coney Barrett, then-President Trump’s latest confirmed nominee, was expected to bring to the court. But proposals to expand the nation’s highest court have not gained much support.
South Carolina is one of two states where judges and justices are elected by the Legislature after going through an initial screening process. Critics say the process is too cozy, and supporters say that bad apples are weeded out, and the result is that quality candidates are usually selected.
News of the expansion push was first reported by The Nerve, a digital publication of the S.C. Policy Council.