The S.C. Supreme Court reprimanded former magistrate George Ferguson, this month for two counts of misconduct. The public reprimand is the most severe punishment the justices could give Ferguson, because he resigned in April of last year.
Magistrates rule on traffic tickets, restraining orders, landlord disputes, minor property damage and other issues. They also have civil jurisdiction over disputes involving up to $7,500.
In May of this year Ferguson pleaded guilty in court to both misconduct charges and was ordered to serve a 90-day sentence.
The first indictment alleged Ferguson was allowed to have “sexual contact” with a woman from 1996 to 2009 in exchange for money or legal benefits stemming from his official capacity on matters that went before his court. A second indictment for the same behavior applied to another woman from 2001 to 2011.
Ferguson, 64, holds an associate degree from Piedmont Technical College and earned a magistrate salary of $51,739, according to the most recent state figures.
South Carolina has about 300 county magistrates. They are recommended by a local legislative delegation member and appointed to four-year terms by the governor upon the advice and consent of the Senate.
Magistrates, who are not required to be lawyers, periodically find themselves in trouble.
In May of last year, the Supreme Court reprimanded a former Dorchester County magistrate for various missteps, including an incident in which the judge decreased a criminal defendant’s bond to $10 and then paid it himself.
The judge, Arthur Tuggle Bryngelson, Jr., also denied someone a restraining order against a police officer. His reasoning was dubious.
Court records said Bryngelson, “commented on the fact that granting a restraining order could have a serious effect on the officer’s career.”
In 2008, Beaufort County magistrate Peter Lamb of Bluffton stepped down after the Supreme Court reprimanded him for calling crack cocaine addiction a “black man’s disease.”
Lamb had also acknowledged that he behaved in an apparently inappropriate way toward female coworkers. In a separate incident, sanction records noted he responded in an “overly harsh manner” to comments made by a speaker at criminal domestic violence seminar.