| |
Manhattan Law School | | ChessLaw
Law School 100 | Law Central | BarPlus Bar Review | LawTV


Court's actions bring on call for more oversight

Published Tuesday, December 11, 2007

If lawmakers move to set up independent oversight of the state Supreme Court, the justices have only themselves to blame.

Their (mis)handling of the July bar exam results highlights how little recourse there is to challenge decisions by the state's high court.

South Carolina law doesn't allow independent investigations of complaints against the court. House Speaker Bobby Harrell says it might be time to change that.

Small comfort that -- more involvement in our court system by state lawmakers. Lawmakers already dominate the screening process for judicial candidates and then elect our judges from among the finalists, including Supreme Court justices. Vote trading among lawmakers is a long-time complaint.

But if they could come up with a truly independent mechanism, then we would all be better served. We're just not very optimistic because the legislature has a predilection to controlling everything.

Justices brought on this cloud of suspicion with their handling of a bar exam score reporting error. The court reversed the grades of 20 people who flunked the July exam -- including the daughters of state Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and longtime Circuit Judge Paul Burch of Pageland.

In doing so, the court violated its own order, issued in March, prohibiting grade changes after they are posted publicly. An "explanation" from the court stated they did so because the score for one person on the wills, trusts and estates section of the test had been reported incorrectly, and (pay attention; this is tricky) they didn't want to change that person's score because it had already been posted.

Problems now cascade from the justices' decision. In addition to a call for independent oversight, we have students who flunked other portions of the seven-section bar exam crying foul. That outcry is entirely predictable and understandable. Why isn't there an appeals process for such a high-stakes test? The March court order apparently took away that option -- the order the justices ignored when they changed the test results for 20 people, but continue to cite when othersquestion their test scores.

All of this mess because the justices didn't do the sensible thing in the first place -- tell one person whose score was reported incorrectly a mistake had been made.

House Speaker Harrell told The (Columbia) State that creating an outside judicial panel to review allegations of misconduct by the Supreme Court "might be something worth considering."

At least 14 states -- including Georgia and North Carolina -- use substitute judicial panels to review disciplinary cases involving their top courts, according to the American Judicature Society's Center for Judicial Ethics.

Here in South Carolina, the Supreme Court has final say on discipline involving lawyers or judges. Under court rules, justices under investigation are required to excuse themselves from their own cases, but there is no outside panel that can impose sanctions.

An independent review process certainly would have inspired more confidence in the investigation of a 2001 hit-and-run involving Chief Justice Jean Toal.

Toal asked the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel -- an arm of the Supreme Court -- to investigate the accident in which she sideswiped an unoccupied parked car about a block from her Columbia home, The State reports. Toal admitted she had been drinking before the accident, though she contended she was not drunk.

About a year later, a hearing panel of the Commission on Judicial Conduct -- another branch of the Supreme Court -- unanimously said Toal violated no judicial ethics rules, and there was no further action, according to the newspaper.

We'll withhold final judgment on the idea of independent oversight of the court until we see what, if anything, lawmakers do.

But the bar exam screw-up certainly was a hit and run on the high court's credibility.