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South Carolina's only Black supreme court justice retired, raising diversity concerns


South Carolina is one of only two states in the country where Supreme Court justices are elected by the legislature. Right now, all the justices on the high court are men. And with the retirement of the court's only Black justice, advocates are pushing for more diversity. South Carolina Public Radio's Maayan Schechter reports.

MAAYAN SCHECHTER, BYLINE: Early last year, the only woman on the South Carolina Supreme Court, Justice Kay Hearn, retired at 72 years old - the state's mandatory age limit for judges.

KAY HEARN: Sometimes it's nice to look up on that bench and see someone that looks like you.

SCHECHTER: Just before her retirement, she wrote the majority opinion in the court's 3-2 decision, striking down the state's then-six-week abortion ban.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I hereby declare that David Garrison Hill is duly elected to the...

SCHECHTER: She was replaced by Gary Hill, creating the first all-male bench since 1988. Now the court faces another diversity predicament. The court's sole Black member, Chief Justice Donald Beatty, is retiring because of his age. Beatty's departure has alarmed incoming Chief Justice John Kittredge. He told lawmakers at a hearing last year that South Carolina's entire court system is not only losing diversity - it's being deprived of institutional knowledge.


JOHN KITTREDGE: We're losing - have lost already and are losing more - four African American men judges.

SCHECHTER: Twenty-seven percent of South Carolina's population is Black, but Democratic State Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter says there are too many barriers for Black judicial candidates.

GILDA COBB-HUNTER: It's not worth me going through that process. It's not worth me coming up there with that legislature trying to convince people to vote for me.

SCHECHTER: Supreme courts in 18 other states have no justices of color. That includes 12 states where people of color make up at least 20% of the population. South Carolina and Virginia are the only states that give lawmakers the power to elect judges. South Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature is currently deciding between three candidates ahead of the June 5 Supreme Court election. Two of the three are women. Only one candidate, a woman, is Black.

LYNN TEAGUE: I think they're unlikely to consider diversity as much as they should.

SCHECHTER: That's Lynn Teague with the State League of Women Voters. The League doesn't outright oppose lawmakers electing judges, but she says lawmakers shouldn't be involved in the nominating process. That way, candidates who might rule against the legislature's wishes aren't automatically excluded.

TEAGUE: We don't just need justices who look like South Carolina. We need justices who understand the world like South Carolina.

SCHECHTER: The state's most conservative lawmakers, the attorney general and elected prosecutors have loudly criticized the state's system. They include House Republican Freedom Caucus member Joe White, who wants lawmakers out of the process, with more input from the governor.

JOE WHITE: The executive branch should have major play in who the judges are.

SCHECHTER: No state's process is entirely perfect, says Alicia Bannon, director of the judiciary program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Systems like South Carolina's, she says, can run the risk of bad transparency and nepotism. But she says it does perhaps help avoid some of the unsavory parts of campaign politics - mainly fundraising.

ALICIA BANNON: That can create really significant conflicts of interest - or potential conflicts of interest, at least.

SCHECHTER: Politics, though, will inevitably be a part of lawmakers' upcoming Supreme Court decision. In the past year, they've heard arguments on executions and private-school vouchers. And last year, the new all-male court upheld a new six-week abortion ban.

For NPR News, I'm Maayan Schechter in South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maayan Schechter
[Copyright 2024 South Carolina Public Radio]
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