Originally created 02/22/98

Legislators' spat backs up court cases



COLUMBIA -- While South Carolina's House and Senate are in a power struggle about electing new judges, assistant prosecutor Fran Humphries is in the trenches, watching the criminal cases back up for want of a judge to hear them.

"It's a battlefield and we're losing ground constantly," said Ms. Humphries, who handles cases in Lexington County.

For the second year in a row, the Legislature put off its scheduled judicial election. While lawmakers argued this past week, almost 7,000 serious criminal cases -- including 476 murder cases -- languished in the courts, and prosecutors say more build up daily.

Criminals are the winners, Attorney General Charlie Condon said.

"Delays benefit the defense," he said. "Witnesses are lost, the crime doesn't seem quite as bad two years from now as it did the week it happens."

The losers are the people, said Ms. Humphries, a deputy to Solicitor Donnie Myers, who has put more people on Death Row than any other current South Carolina prosecutor.

"The victims, they don't call the judges wanting to know when they're going to get justice. They don't call the Legislature. They call us, the prosecutors," he said. "And there's nothing we can tell them."

The state constitution requires joint legislative elections for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Circuit Courts. Eight Circuit Court positions -- five retirees and three new slots -- are vacant out of 46 judgeships, according to the courts' administrative office. Other terms are scheduled to expire in June or July.

The other courts in the state face the same problem, with a potential of 44 other judicial positions, including a state Supreme Court seat, vacant by July.

"That's a train wreck waiting to happen," Mr. Condon said. "It is going to be chaos."

If this is a train wreck, then House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, and Senate President Pro Tem John Drummond, D-Ninety Six, are the engineers.

Mr. Drummond and the other 45 senators want to change the "one legislator-one vote" judicial election system so their votes count as much as the 124 representatives.

"Everything else is majority of the House and majority of the Senate except that one thing," Mr. Drummond said.

The House refuses to change. "We just want to do them the way it's been done for 200 years," Mr. Wilkins said.

Senators say they each represent more people than representatives. They want each chamber to vote separately or want their votes weighted more. With 124 House members and 46 senators, a candidate can win without meeting one senator.

"It would be only fair to vote by chambers," Mr. Drummond said.

But from Mr. Wilkins: "The House will never, never, never concede on this issue."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney begged lawmakers to resolve their election squabble in his recent "state of the judiciary" speech.

"Should you fail in this endeavor, the past 200 years of work and sacrifices and dedication to build and maintain a justice system ... will be undermined and severely damaged, perhaps beyond repair," Chief Justice Finney said.

Legislature's weekly status

South Carolina General Assembly action for Feb. 17-19:

Video poker:

Video-poker lobbyists said the industry was not criminal, despite a report in The (Charleston) Post and Courier linking the $2 billion industry to an organized crime ring in Pittsburgh. A handful of senators held a news conference denouncing the video-gambling business and calling for a Senate vote to ban it.

School accountability:

An education accountability bill passed the Senate with an amendment calling for a reduction in elementary class sizes. The measure was approved even though Sens. Phil Leventis and John Land criticized it as "feel-good" legislation.

Affirmative action:

The House approved a bill to ban affirmative action in government hiring. Though the bill passed the Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly, it is likely to face more opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate. If the measure does not pass before the end of this legislative session, it will die.

Judicial elections:

The General Assembly was

supposed to vote on more than 50 judges, but a dispute between the House and Senate once again prevented the elections. The House set another election date for Wednesday. Senators are challenging a 200-year-old system that makes their votes equal to those of state representatives.

BMW training:

Legislators called for state auditors to review tax-funded training at BMW's auto manufacturing plant in Greer. The uproar came after reports that employees were taken on publicly funded white-water rafting trips. BMW spokesman Bobby Hitt said the trips were team-building exercises the state could have refused to reimburse.

Re-election:

Rep. Brad Jordan said he will not seek re-election because he wants to spend more time with his family and take care of his business, which surprised both parties. Mr. Jordan was in the middle of a controversy last May after his brother Henry, appointed by Mr. Jordan to the State Board of Education, said "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims" during a meeting.