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South Carolina’s Supreme Court will soon have no Black justices

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — For the first time in nearly two decades, South Carolina’s Supreme Court will be entirely white.

Diversity on the bench is a big topic in a state where African Americans and Hispanics make up a third of the population. The General Assembly selects the state’s judges, and it has so rarely chosen non-white jurists that Black lawmakers briefly walked out of judicial elections five years ago over diversity concerns.

When a new justice is seated after next week’s election, South Carolina will join 18 other states with all-white high courts, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks diversity and other issues in court systems.

Twelve of those states have minority populations of at least 20%, the organization reported.

“It’s shameful. Whether people like it or not, we have a diverse state. The people who appear before the bench are diverse. The judges they appear before should be diverse,” Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said.

Circuit Judge Jocelyn Newman was the lone Black candidate for the state Supreme Court seat coming open. The only African American on the high court, Chief Justice Don Beatty, has to leave because he has reached the mandatory retirement age of 72.

But Newman dropped out of the race after candidates could begin asking lawmakers for support. That leaves a white man and a white woman as the two remaining candidates.

Candidates for judges typically don’t campaign or speak publicly in South Carolina, outside of hearings in which a panel screens them to see if they are qualified and narrows the number of candidates sent to lawmakers to three.

South Carolina’s Supreme Court already came under scrutiny as the nation’s only all-male high court. The justices ruled 4-1 last year to uphold the state’s strict abortion ban at around six weeks after conception, before many women know they are pregnant.

That decision came after the woman who wrote the majority opinion in a 3-2 ruling had to retire because of her age, and lawmakers made minor tweaks in the law, enabling another high court review.

“Sometimes it’s nice to look up on that bench and see someone that looks like you,” Associate Justice Kaye Hearn lamented in an interview with South Carolina ETV after she left the court.

Beatty’s replacement on the bench this summer will be John Kittredge, who was unopposed in his campaign. Kittredge told lawmakers that diversity is critical to the justice system and that only the General Assembly, where 118 of the 170 members are Republican, can assure that.

“We have a great system. But if it does not reflect the people of South Carolina, we are going to lose the respect and integrity of the public that we serve,” Kittredge said.

With Republicans dominating the state’s politics, it is going to require leadership from the governor, General Assembly leaders and business and community leaders to start getting more diversity into the court system again, said Cobb-Hunter, a Black woman who is the state’s longest serving representative at 32 years.

Cobb-Hunter points out there is only one Black judge on the nine-member Court of Appeals, which is often a springboard to the high court, and lawmakers chose a white man over a Black woman for the last open seat in April. There has never been a Black woman on the South Carolina Supreme Court.

“When they talk about women not being elected, I know nine times out of 10 they are talking about white women and not women of color,” Cobb-Hunter said.

By JEFFREY COLLINS
Associated Press

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