County: magistrate shortage not currently impairing caseload

WINNSBORO – The shortage of experienced magistrates in Fairfield County is not currently causing a case backlog despite sweeping changes in magistrate posts, County officials say.

As it stands, only two Fairfield magistrates are qualified to preside over cases – Paul Swearingen and newly appointed Chief Magistrate Russell Feaster.

State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Great Falls appointed four new magistrates in May, but they can’t handle cases on their own because none hold a law degree, according to their resumes.

Jannita Gaston, Danielle Miller, Katina Capers-Washington and Vannessa Hollins must observe 10 cases before they can oversee cases, a six- to nine-month process.

County Administrator Jason Taylor says he recently conferred with Swearingen and Feaster, and he said each one said they could handle their current caseloads.

“Both Paul and Russell said they are okay, and as long as their workload is not overwhelming them, I think we’re fine,” Taylor said.

In June, the county feared it might need to enlist temporary magistrates while the appointees receive training, potentially pinching the county budget since temporary judges were unbudgeted.

Fairfield County appropriated $559,114 for the magistrate’s office in its 2019-2020 budget. Taylor initially thought temporary magistrates could cause the county to exceed that total, but now he doesn’t foresee any immediate problems.

“At this point we have coverage without having to hire outside judges,” Taylor said.

The Fairfield County Magistrate Office has seen extensive change. In addition to Fanning appointing apprentices to the bench – Hollings has experience as a magistrate for the Town of Winnsboro – another Fanning appointee was appointed chief magistrate.

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty appointed Swearingen to serve as chief justice on June 28. Two weeks later, in a surprise move on June 12 – the day after the county was notified that one of the newly appointed magistrates could not be bonded through the county’s bonding company – Beatty nullified the order to appoint Swearingen as chief justice, and replaced him with Feaster who was appointed magistrate by Fanning last year. The new order installs Feaster as chief magistrate through Dec. 31.

“The provisions of this Order are effective immediately and shall remain in effect unless amended or revoked by subsequent Order of the Chief Justice,” the order states.

An S.C. Court Administration representative couldn’t provide an exact reason for the switch.

“Chief Magistrate appointments are made at the discretion of the Chief Justice, who issues an order appointing Chief Magistrates every six months,” agency spokeswoman Ginny Jones said via email. “The Chief Justice also makes interim appointments as needed for the continued operation and efficiency of the Unified Judicial System.”

Former Fairfield Magistrate Will Pope said it’s highly unusual for the magistrate office to experience such sweeping changes.

“Why Paul was removed, I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t understand it. I don’t know that being there a year, if Judge Feaster truly knows a lot about the system, about what goes on.”

Pope spent 27 years working as a magistrate in Fairfield County, including 17 as chief magistrate. He retired April 30.

Also retiring from the bench this year was Carol Tolen. William Robinson and Johnny Dewese were replaced by Fanning. Both Robinson and Dewese were subsequently hired by the Town of Winnsboro to serve as magistrates for the Town.

Pope said he’s perplexed by Fanning’s decision to replace Robinson and Dewese, two trained and experienced judges.

“He (Fanning) says the good old boy system is gone,” Pope said. “There’s no rhyme or reason why he did what he did.”

Problems have peppered the appointment of Fairfield magistrates since the appointment of the four new judges earlier this year.

Fanning announced the appointments of Gaston, Miller, Capers-Washington and Hollins via Facebook in May, calling them “outstanding new appointees” and touting their experience in doing so.

“Our 4 new Fairfield County Magistrates bring a wealth of diverse experiences to the position,” the post said.

However, public records reviewed by The Voice have called the appointment process and some candidate qualifications into question.

A screening committee that interviewed magistrates likely violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, by failing to provide the required 24-hour notice of its meeting.

The committee itself also included controversial members, such as Chester Chief Magistrate Angel Underwood, who the S.C. Supreme Court suspended in 2015. She was reinstated a year later.

Her husband, former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, now under indictment in a pending excessive use of force case, participated in at least some of the interviews too, according to two candidates speaking with The Voice.

Alex Underwood was not under indictment when the interviews took place but was being investigated.

Fairfield magistrates who were appointed had to be reappointed because at the time, none of them had taken a basic skills exam that state law requires magistrate candidates to pass prior to appointment.

When the magistrates were tested, some of them required multiple attempts to pass the exam, according to public records.

Most recently, Judge Miller’s credit history nearly prevented her from being bonded, a requirement of magistrates.

Public records obtained through the FOIA show that Miller was initially denied bonding, but later secured bond through alternative means.