The sometimes contentious S.C. Supreme Court chief justice and an associate justice known for his dissenting opinions fielded questions by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission Tuesday. The select group of lawmakers and attorneys prepares to make a recommendation over who will lead the state’s top court for the next few years.
After 13 years in the position, Chief Justice Jean Toal is seeking just two years of a 10-year term before she will retire at the state-mandated age of 72. Justice Costa Pleicones is seeking to unseat Toal in his final three years before his own retirement.
Tuesday, Toal and Pleicones addressed both praise for their work and questions of rudeness toward attorneys, potential political bias, lack of collegiality, and the backlog of cases in South Carolina courts.
Toal told the commission she wanted to remain chief justice to finish implementing a statewide electronic filing system, modernizing the system to reduce backlog, and increasing the use of therapeutic courts to deal with addiction and mental health-linked offenses.
While Toal focused on the nuts and bolts of the judicial operation, Pleicones focused on processes and dockets, saying effective case management is needed to dispose of cases.
The commission surveyed 1,100 attorneys, judicial employees, and clerks of court to evaluate the candidates. While both surveys showed a majority of positive attitudes toward the candidates, the members addressed some specific concerns.
Forty of 107 written responses were negative, including comments that Toal was rude to attorneys or had a political bias in her decisions. Toal rebuffed the charge, saying she wasn’t perfect but she might be misunderstood by “those not on the winning side.”
“Read my opinions and I think you will see that they are honest attempts by a judge who loves the law to find the answer she thinks is the correct answer to the dispute that is placed before me,” Toal told the commission.
Pleicones faced questions about his frequent dissenting opinions on the court. The commission’s ballot box survey showed that while a majority held a positive view of the associate justice, there were concerns about his “contrarian” nature and lack of experience overseeing a large court system.
“Collegiality is not fostered by lockstep of the court,” Pleicones told the commission. “I don’t write separately for the purpose of writing separately. Again I write separately because this General Assembly elected me to voice my opinion as to what the law is and I do that.”
On matters like the budget, Pleicones said he still had a learning curve.
“I am unfamiliar with the exact process of formulating a budget but I do know what the budget says,” he said.
Toal spoke of how she got the court through the great recession and dramatic state government budget cuts.
“We almost lost our court system four years ago,” she said.
As both candidates addressed case backlogs, commission member and trial attorney Pete Strom asked them about a high-profile case yet to be decided that hinges on school equality in South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame.” READ ABOUT CASE.
“Five and a half years,” said Pleicones, when asked about the case. “I don’t want to get into the inner workings of the court…I have addressed my concerns about timely processing of cases and that continues to a concern with me and will be a point of emphasis with me as chief justice.”
“Some cases take an awfully long time to try to speak with anything like one voice,” Toal answered in her turn at the same question. “The more important and higher the stakes are about the basic structure of government and what the court’s proper role should be and what the General Assembly’s proper role should be, by way of not only making the law, but making policy, the more difficult it becomes to make a decision.”
The decision about who will oversee this process in the Supreme Court will now be up to the General Assembly.
Lindsay Street contributed to this report