Originally created 11/06/96

South Carolina voters pass complex referendum issues



COLUMBIA - South Carolina voters approved nine ballot questions Tuesday, from toughening standards for state lawmakers and judges to ensuring victims' rights.

All the statewide referendums passed by a wide margin, with most gaining more than 80 percent approval.

The densely worded constitutional amendments may have slowed some voters, most of whom were limited to three to five minutes inside the booth.

"We will never again, in my opinion, put nine constitutional amendments on the ballot," said state Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia. "It created horrific lines throughout South Carolina ... and it may have been a deterrent to people voting," he said. "We will never see that again."

The issues ranged from a "victim's bill of rights," whether to change the way judges are selected, whether to keep convicted felons from running for office and whether to allow the state to invest pension money in stocks as well as bonds.

A change in the way judges are selected has been sought for years. It gained momentum, however, after legislators last year elected two candidates rated poorly by a legislative screening committee and the South Carolina Bar.

Instead of having an inside track on judgeships, lawmakers would have to resign before they could seek a seat on the bench. A screening committee could take unqualified candidates out of the running and citizens would sit on that panel for the first time.

Another amendment would raise the minimum age for judges from 26 to 32 and require eight years' experience practicing law, instead of the current five.

"It just seemed reasonable to me that they had a longer amount of experience," said Norah Sinclair, 29, who voted for the change.

Voters also were asked to put tighter restrictions on who can run for the Legislature and other elected offices. The amendment would keep felons from running until 15 years after their sentences are served.

Among the felons who recently have sought legislative seats was Chris Pracht of Anderson, a former Democratic state representative who served time on a marijuana smuggling charge. He was running for the House again Tuesday. If Mr. Pracht won, however, he would be allowed to complete his term.

The victims' bill of rights, which was pushed by state Attorney General Charlie Condon, would require that crime victims be treated "with fairness, respect and dignity." Prosecutors would have to tell crime victims about changes in their cases and give them access to case records after investigation are closed. Judges would ensure the mandates were followed.

Nancy Doolittle voted to approve the question.

"I feel that it is very important for people ... to be punished for their problems and the victim not to be victimized for the rest of their lives," she said.

But defense lawyer Jack Duncan called such measures "vigilante justice."

"I voted `no' on victim's rights because it's made prosecution of crime a vendetta," he said.