Senate reappoints Fairfield magistrates

WINNSBORO – On Tuesday, state senators reappointed the four Fairfield magistrate candidates – Jannita Gaston, Danielle Miller, Katina Capers-Washington and Vanessa Hollins – who were nominated by Sen. Fanning and initially appointed by the Senate on May 20 and May 21.

The reappointment was ordered by Gov. McMaster after it was learned that none of the Fairfield appointments had passed the required examinations when they were originally appointed in May, according to legislative records.

Election Commission

Fanning posted on the county website Feb. 7 and again on Feb. 26 for applicants to apply for the Fairfield election commission. The deadline to apply was March 15.

Fanning’s office reported that only the six sitting commissioners applied after the first post and that only the six and one other applied by the March 15 deadline. There is no word yet whether Fanning will be appointing any new members to the commission.

Fairfield County Councilman Douglas Pauley asked if there were efforts to replace the county’s election commissioners. He said if revamping the board is the goal, phasing people out over a period of time is preferable to cleaning house all at one time.

“I would say keep some experienced people, maybe put some new people on there,” he said. “Over time, if you wanted to replace all of them, as people get more experience, then you can replace them.”

Pauley’s remarks came moments after Monday night’s council meeting, where he publicly raised concerns about costs associated with replacing experienced magistrates with untrained ones.

“Do we have any idea what this magistrate situation is going to cost us?” Pauley asked during council remarks.

County Administrator Jason Taylor replied that he planned to meet with Fanning on Wednesday to discuss budgeting issues. That meeting was scheduled after The Voice went to press.

“He [Fanning] thinks he has some ideas. He thinks he can help us in that respect,” Taylor said.

Pauley also raised concerns that the new magistrates would be paid retroactively.

When the Fairfield magistrate candidates were first approved in May, they were appointed to serve four-year terms retroactive to April 30, 2018, according to Senate Journal records.

Taylor said the county would follow state recommendations on pay, but couldn’t say definitively how pay would be structured or if pay would be retroactive.

Taylor previously told The Voice that part-time magistrates would likely earn about $25,000 a year, with full-time judges making a little more than twice that amount.

“Once they’re appointed, they start getting paid,” Taylor said.

After methodically plowing through budget vetoes for nearly two hours Tuesday, senators breezed through magistrate approvals, finalizing the appointments of Gaston, Miller, Capers-Washington and Hollins.

Though initially approved May 20 and May 21, none of the candidates took two required exams until at least May 23, according to documents The Voice obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Applicants are required to pass the tests before they’re appointed, according to state law.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, following recent reports in The Voice newspaper, asked the Senate to reconfirm the magistrate candidates during Tuesday’s special session.

The governor’s office has also begun requiring proof that magistrate candidates have passed their exams before senators can vote on them, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes told The Voice.

“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,” Symmes previously said. “That way, we will not have this particular issue arise again.”

The legislative do-over became necessary following news reports by The Voice that some Fairfield and Chester magistrate applicants failed to achieve passing scores on exams all magistrate appointees must take.

Documents further show that some nominees took the tests multiple times and one candidate was tested as late as June 10. According to reliable sources, one candidate passed the test last week.

S.C. Court Administration Ginny Jones has said the department cannot release scores of individual test takers, nor can the agency specify who has passed or failed.

While reliable sources told The Voice that at least one magistrate took the test at least three times, finally passing it last week, that information could not be independently verified through the administrative court before press time.

On Tuesday, Jones said the agency had no updates on Fairfield candidates, but noted Chester County magistrate Jeffery Garris took the exams on June 10. Garris was not among the four Chester applicants who had already taken the tests, Jones said.

State law requires magistrate applicants to meet only minimum requirements to be appointed.

They must possess a bachelor’s degree and pass the two exams that quiz candidates on basic knowledge on par with a sixth grade education level.

Newly appointed magistrates aren’t required to possess a law degree provided they observe at least 10 trials conducted by a sitting judge.

In 2016, the S.C. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have significantly strengthened the magistrate screening process.

House Bill 4665 would have required magistrate candidates to follow the same screening process as circuit court judges, which must be interviewed by state lawmakers in a public setting, according to legislative records.

The vote passed 82-24, but the bill died in the Senate and hasn’t been brought back, records show.