Magistrate appointments bungled

WINNSBORO – State senators will reconvene next week, in part to reconsider four controversial magistrate appointments in Fairfield County, according to S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s Office.

Specifically, Jannita Gaston, Danielle Miller, Katina Capers-Washington and Vanessa Hollins must go through the reappointment process again. That process includes verification of whether they have passed two required eligibility examinations, said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.

Senators were already scheduled to head back into session Tuesday to finalize the state budget, though lingering issues over Fairfield magistrate appointments will also be addressed.

“The Senate recognizes that those appointments are not effective because of the status of the tests,” Symmes said. “They [senators] are going to take up these appointments.”

McMaster and the Senate pressed the reset button on the magistrate appointments following an investigation by The Voice, which found multiple candidates had to take the exams more than once, that none of the four had taken the exams prior to their appointment and that at least one nominee had reportedly not passed the exams at all.

Due to the exam debacle, Symmes said magistrate nominees are now going to have to provide proof of having passed the tests before appointments can move forward.

“Because of this issue that was pointed out to our office by Court Administration, there have been changes put in place in our boards and commissions appointment process to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.” Symmes said. “We will now require the Senate delegation to confirm to our office, along with the nomination of these individuals, that they have taken their tests. That way, we will not have this particular issue arise again.”

Magistrate shortage

Fairfield County could potentially see a magistrate shortage for months, while also putting a strain on the county budget.

State law prohibits new magistrates who don’t possess a law degree from hearing cases unless they first observe another judge preside over at least 10 cases. It could take six to nine months for the new magistrates to fulfill that requirement, said Fairfield County Administrator Jason Taylor.

During that time, the county would have to hire interim magistrates in addition to paying the salaries of the county’s four magistrates in training.

Taylor said he has not seen any signs yet of the magistrate’s office experiencing any backlogs.

However, he fears it’s a possibility, noting that the office advised him that operations previously became “strained” with two vacancies.

“I’m working with our chief magistrate, Paul Swearingen, on scheduling issues and such to see how we can manage to do this while they are still in training,” Taylor said. “I’ve got to look at our budget and see what we can do.”

In the recently adopted 2019-2020 budget, Fairfield County appropriated $559,114 for the magistrate’s office.

Taylor said part time magistrates make about $25,000 year, and estimated full-time magistrates make a little more than twice that amount. The magistrate budget covers other operational expenses as well.

Strain on County Budget

If the county has to utilize interim magistrates, which are unbudgeted, the money would have to come from elsewhere. How much money depends on from which county the interim magistrates come, Taylor said.

“We may have to borrow [magistrates] from surrounding counties,” Taylor said. “Obviously Richland County magistrates make a lot more than ours do.”

The Fairfield magistrate vacancies occurred when Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Great Falls, who represents Fairfield County, opted not to reappoint two experienced incumbent magistrates. He also filled two additional vacancies due to retirements.

None of the four candidates Fanning nominated took their required exams until after he announced their appointment on social media, teeing up the magistrate appointment do-over.

Fanning couldn’t be reached for comment.

In announcing the appointees, Fanning in a May 21 Facebook post called them “outstanding individuals” who he said would “bring a wealth of diverse experiences to the position.”

Fanning’s post said the magistrates would begin serving May 22. However, the earliest a candidate had even taken the test was May 23, according to documents obtained from Court Administration through a Freedom of Information Act request. At least one candidate hadn’t taken the tests until June, documents show, and it is reported that another still had not passed the tests after multiple tries.

State law requires magistrate nominees to pass two exams – the Wonderlich Personnel Test and the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal II – before they can be appointed.

“A senatorial delegation must use the results of these eligibility examinations to assist in its selection of nominees,” the law reads. “No person is eligible to be appointed as a magistrate unless he receives a passing score on the eligibility examination.”

Candidates are expected to be capable of reading at a sixth grade reading level. They must also know how to tell time, know the days and months of the year and understand basic skills in math, measurements and monetary units, according to Court Administration.

Magistrates have numerous responsibilities. They issue arrest warrants, conduct bond hearings, preside over misdemeanor cases and hear small claims civil cases.