COLUMBIA - Efforts to get more black judges on the bench in South Carolina got a boost Tuesday at the Statehouse with a visit from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and approval of a bill to change the judicial nominating process.
The bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee would release a list of all qualified candidates to the General Assembly, rather than a maximum of three candidates.
The Rev. Jackson reiterated his call for popular elections for South Carolina judges during a speech at the Statehouse, though there is no pending legislation on the matter.
Speaking on a range of issues from voter registration to racial profiling, the civil rights leader told those at a public forum that race, geography, gender and class can all be barriers to being elected to the bench under South Carolina's system.
"It's not just racial," the Rev. Jackson said. "Look at the lack of women."
The number of black judges in South Carolina has, at times, become a contentious issue this legislative session.
State Reps. Jerry Govan and Jim Harrison were involved in a heated exchange that turned physical when Mr. Govan's bill, intended to help elect more black judges, didn't get out of a subcommittee.
Less than 7 percent of judges elected by the General Assembly are black, though 30 percent of South Carolina's population is black.
But some, including state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, have said the percentage of black judges at the trial and appellate levels is in line with the percentage of black lawyers in the state.
Chief Justice Toal, the state's first woman chief justice who says she wants to see more diversity on the bench, said the number of black judges will increase with better recruitment of black law school students.
The Rev. Jackson disagreed Tuesday, saying there are plenty of qualified black lawyers.
In South Carolina, the Judicial Merit Selection Committee, which is made up of 10 members picked by House and Senate leaders, pick a slate of nominees.
The committee weighs candidates' qualifications and forwards a maximum of three selections to the General Assembly.
South Carolina and Virginia are the only states that use legislators to elect trial and appellate judges, though there are differences in procedures, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Most states, including North Carolina and Georgia, use a combination of appointment and popular election systems.
The Rev. Jackson's visit Tuesday was important because there is a "sense of urgency" among black lawmakers, said Mr. Govan, D-Orangeburg.
"There are major disparities," he said.