Members of the South Carolina Black Legislative Caucus discuss their concerns with judicial elections in the General Assembly on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. The caucus was upset that two black women lost the only contested races to white candidates. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A number of black lawmakers in South Carolina briefly walked out of judicial elections Wednesday after the Legislature elected a white attorney who has never been a judge to the state Court of Appeals over an African-American woman who has been on the bench 20 years.
Only one other race among the 44 judgeships was contested, and in that race a white woman defeated an African-American woman for a Family Court seat.
“You made a statement that qualifications don’t count,” said Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews of Waterboro after the vote. She said lawmakers needed to do better.
Members of the House and Senate in a joint session voted 87-73 to put Conway lawyer Blake Hewitt on South Carolina’s second- highest court. Hewitt defeated Circuit Court Judge Alison Renee Lee of Columbia, who has been on the bench since 1999. Lee is black, and Hewitt is white.
South Carolina legislators elect the state’s judges. Only Virginia has a similar system.
Bright Matthews said Hewitt wasn’t completely unqualified, but his lack of judicial experience compared to Lee’s two decades on the bench should have made the difference.
“What I see is a lot of cronyism,” Bright Matthews, who is African-American, said in a news conference with about 20 fellow members of the Black Legislative Caucus after the joint session ended.
Supporters of Hewitt pointed out he is one of the most respected appellate lawyers in the state and was a law clerk for both former South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal and federal judge Joe Anderson.
Lee was nominated for a federal judgeship under President Barack Obama, but South Carolina’s U.S. senators withdrew their support after Lee reduced the bond of two defendants who later were charged with murders after they got out of jail. The bond issue was not raised during her screening for the state bench.
In the other race for a Family Court seat in the Greenville area, Jessica Ann Salvini, who is white, defeated Kim Nichols-Graham, who is black.
Bright Matthews said she will call for changes in the screening commission that determines if candidates are qualified in an effort to get more female, minority and gay judges in state courts.
Not all black lawmakers walked out. Sen. Gerald Malloy stayed even though he supported Lee and said it made “eyebrows go up” when both African-American candidates lost.
Malloy pointed out that Chief Justice Don Beatty is the only black judge on the state’s five-member highest court and will have to retire in five years and there are no minority female judges on the nine-seat Court of Appeals.
“Tomorrow’s another day. We need to continue to bring forth qualified candidates,” the Democratic senator from Hartsville said.
Judicial Merit Selection Commission Vice Chairman Rep. Murrell Smith noted that several Democrats voted for Hewitt.
“It was a tough choice” between two highly qualified people, said Smith, a Republican attorney from Sumter.
Wednesday’s judicial election session was unusually testy. It took more than 90 minutes even though just two of the 44 judgeships were contested. The process slowed as legislators called for several unsuccessful roll call votes to dump several unopposed candidates.
In roll call votes, clerks call the name of all 124 House members and all 46 senators. House members typically vote on an electronic board in just a few minutes.