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Black lawmakers disappointed by selection of white judges

February 8, 2021 GMT
South Carolina Sen. Luke Rankin speaks from the well as House Speaker Jay Lucas, Senate President Harvey Peeler and others look on during judicial elections in the South Carolina House chambers on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The House and Senate were meeting in joint session. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
South Carolina Sen. Luke Rankin speaks from the well as House Speaker Jay Lucas, Senate President Harvey Peeler and others look on during judicial elections in the South Carolina House chambers on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The House and Senate were meeting in joint session. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Black lawmakers in South Carolina say they are disappointed but not surprised that every one of the two dozen judges elected by the Legislature earlier this month are white.

The state court system is run by Chief Justice Don Beatty, who is Black. One of nine judges is Black on the next highest court, the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Of the 61 judges on the supreme, appeals or circuit courts in South Carolina, nine are Black, or 15% of them in a state where 27% of the population is Black, the Post and Courier of Charleston reported.

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“While I don’t say any members have ill intentions, I don’t think they’re cognizant that representation matters, and we have to do our due diligence to make sure we elected judges that look like South Carolina,” Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, an attorney and Black Democratic lawmaker from North Charleston.

The majority of races on Feb. 3 were uncontested, but in four of them, a Black woman lost or withdrew because of a lack of support among lawmakers.

“The time of the Black woman just seems to not have arrived in South Carolina,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “For me, it was just a sad day.”

South Carolina uses a 10-member committee appointed by lawmakers to screen potential judicial candidates and recommend up to three candidates to the General Assembly, which elects the state judges directly. Six of the 10 members of the Judicial Merit Selection Committee are legislators.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin is chairman of the selection commission. He said he was proud of this round of new judges and every candidate had a chance to campaign and show their qualifications to the entire General Assembly.

“So the criticism that this was not a diverse group doesn’t speak to the work of our committee, it speaks to each candidate’s own strengths,” the Republican from Myrtle Beach said.

Black lawmakers told the newspaper they would continue to try to recruit the best lawyers they can to be judges, but some wonder if the situation can ever change.

Two years ago, a number of Black lawmakers walked out of judicial elections after the Legislature elected a white attorney who has never been a judge to the state Court of Appeals over a Black woman who has been on the bench 20 years. In the only other contested judicial race out of the 44 decided in February 2019, a white woman defeated an Black woman for a Family Court seat.

“This is nothing really new,” said Rep. Leon Howard, D-Columbia. “In 1995, when I was elected to the House of Representatives we had little to no African American judges on the bench, and finally we were able to make some strides. Now we are stuck in reverse.”