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Judging Controversy

Family Court Judge from Laurens with 6 years experience is named to the appeals court


SC GOP lawmakers reject former House Democrat in controversial judicial election

Former Rep. Smith was the lone candidate. Abortion played key role in Republicans’ vote to start over.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s judicial elections took a dramatic turn Wednesday after GOP lawmakers broke with precedent to reject a former House Democrat and Columbia lawyer for an uncontested Circuit Court seat, choosing instead to restart the application and screening process.

James Smith, 56, was the sole candidate for the Fifth Circuit seat after his lone contender dropped out in January.

But rather than taking the traditional route of unanimously electing Smith, Republicans pushed — by a vote of 94-58 — to start the process over again.

Normally, judicial elections in South Carolina are primarily about friendships and connections. Candidates’ ties to legislators past and president, regardless of their party, normally secure their win, as evidenced even Wednesday.

Other judges elected or re-elected included the son of a former House Democrat, the brother of a former Senate Democrat and a former House Republican.

Rep. Micah Caskey, chairman of the Legislature’s judicial screening committee, said Smith’s election was treated differently because of positions and votes he took on certain issues over his decades-long tenure, though he declined to name them.

“The objection to his candidacy predated his actual candidacy,” said the West Columbia Republican.

As with last year’s election that filled a state Supreme Court vacancy, debates over abortion played a key role.

The maneuver by House Majority Leader Davey Hiott, R-Pickens, to start over in Smith’s case had House Democrats arguing about parliamentary rules with Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, who presided over proceedings of the joint assembly of the House and Senate.

In recent memory, no attempt to send a judicial race back to the screening committee has been successful.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, called the move an “insult to the process” and chastised Republicans who “pulled the rug out from under” Smith after having previously pledged their support to him.

South Carolina is one of two states in which state judges are elected by a combined vote of the Legislature. Virginia is the other.

Experience and connections

Some early controversy swirled around the contest for the seat with a spotlight on the lack of racial and gender diversity in the state’s judiciary. There are only four Black judges among the state’s 49 trial judge seats, two of which are vacant after one judge got a federal promotion last year and another retired.

The seat that Smith was running for opened up last year after Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, a Black woman and wife of former Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin — now a White House advisor — was nominated by President Joe Biden to a federal court seat. Judge Benjamin was confirmed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in September.

She is another example of how relationships usually result in a win in a South Carolina judicial race, but sometimes politics takes over.

Legislators first elected Benjamin to the Circuit Court seat that Smith was seeking in 2011, while her husband was mayor. But in 2021, then-rare external pressure from a conservative advocacy group resulted in her losing a bid for a promotion to the S.C. Court of Appeals.

Smith, in addition to practicing law for nearly three decades, served in the House before an unsuccessful run for governor in 2018 against Henry McMaster.

Smith’s 22 years as a legislator included a 16-month deployment to Afghanistan, leaving the session early in 2006 for training and returning in May 2008 to a standing ovation in the House.

After leaving the Statehouse, Smith worked as a special assistant to University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen, who resigned in 2021. The decorated combat veteran is currently practicing with the Nelson Mullins law firm in Columbia.

The other candidate for Benjamin’s former seat, Justin Williams, who is Black, dropped out in January.

Rutherford, who is Black and sits on the legislative committee that screens judicial candidates, was an early supporter of Smith’s, arguing he had more legal experience than Williams. Williams, 39, had practiced law for 12 years, including stints as an assistant prosecutor with the 5th Circuit Solicitor, and he served as a state utility regulator.

In addition to Rutherford, Smith had the support of most of the Richland County delegation for a seat based in Richland County.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian called the slighting of Smith a dramatic change from precedent.

How abortion factors in

Smith’s opposition to anti-abortion bills over the years was cited as a reason driving the opposition. How judges may rule on abortion laws newly became part of the equation after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022 and left state legislatures and justices to decide the legality of abortions.

Harpootlian called that a red herring, since Smith was seeking a Circuit Court seat, not a spot on the state Supreme Court.

That’s “a shame because James Smith would have made a great judge,” the Columbia Democrat said.

But Planned Parenthood’s latest lawsuit, filed in February in Richland County, will be heard by a Circuit Court judge after the state Supreme Court refused to directly take that case. However, it’s almost guaranteed to end up before the state’s high court. And Smith’s supporters contend he would’ve put politics and personal beliefs aside in his rulings anyway.

But Planned Parenthood’s endorsement of Smith in 2018, ahead of that year’s three-way Democratic primary for governor, worked against him.

The hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus pointed to that endorsement on social media in calling for his rejection.

Lawmakers voted largely along party lines when turning Smith down.

Eleven Republicans voted with Democrats, including Richland County’s only Republican legislator, Rep. Nathan Ballentine.

The state’s lone Independent Sen. Mia McLeod, a former Democrat representing northeast Columbia, voted with the GOP majority. McLeod, who does not get along with Rutherford, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2022 and lost in the Democratic primary.

A delay in the election gave Smith’s opponents more time to lobby against him.

Judicial elections were initially planned for Feb. 7, three weeks after state law allowed candidates to start asking legislators for their support. But debates over how to reform the judicial selection process put elections on hold, giving 10 weeks longer than normal for people inside and outside the Statehouse to weigh in.

Opponents included the conservative, faith-based lobbying group Palmetto Family Alliance, which alluded to Smith’s support of abortion rights in its position statement.

“While Palmetto Family is grateful for Mr. Smith’s service to our country and his military career, we cannot support his record and his stance on issues as they pertain to our mission,” read the statement that went out Feb. 5. “His endorsements and connections with Planned Parenthood and other liberal organizations is concerning and must be considered when weighing his placement on the bench.”

Other elections

A race for a seat on the state’s Court of Appeals marked another tight contest.

After three rounds of voting, lawmakers cast 92 votes to elect Matthew Turner over Jan Bromell Holmes, who received 66 votes.

Turner is a white male family court judge from Laurens with six years on the bench. Bromell Holmes is a Black female family court judge from Georgetown with 17 years of experience. Her support largely came from Black Democrats and Upstate Republicans.

A Columbia personal injury attorney, Whitney Harrison, withdrew in the second round due to a lack of votes.

Administrative Law Judge Milton Kimpson of Columbia also won in a contested race for a Circuit Court seat. Milton Kimpson is the brother of former state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who resigned last year after taking a job with the Biden administration.

Other judges with connections include re-elected Judge Daniel McLeod Coble, son of former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble. Coble was first elected in 2022 to fulfill the term of retiring Judge Casey Manning.

Judge Walton McLeod IV, son of former Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain, also was re-elected. McLeod first came to the bench in 2018, two years after his dad retired from the House.

As the sole candidate, former state Rep. Derham Cole Jr., R-Spartanburg, was elected to replace his father on the Circuit Court when he retires this year.

SC Daily Gazette Editor Seanna Adcox contributed to this report. 


Jessica Holdman writes about the economy, workforce and higher education. Before joining the SC Daily Gazette, she was a business reporter for The Post and Courier.

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.