SC judges remain on bench for years despite alleged crimes, ethical lapses

Editor’s note: This story was produced in collaboration with The News & Reporter of Chester.

A secretive system shields the accused, even judges who face allegations of criminal behavior.
Then-Chester County Chief Magistrate Angel Underwood is sworn in by County Clerk of Court Sue Carpenter. | Brian Garner/Chester News & Reporter

South Carolina’s secretive, slow-moving system for policing its judges allows the accused to remain on the bench for years despite serious questions about their character and impartiality.

In one case, a Chester County judge still sits as a magistrate despite persistent complaints that her conflicts with the sheriff’s department make her position untenable. Court officials haven’t acted on a grievance detailing the concerns in the two years since it was filed.

Records documenting these and other complaints, obtained by The Post and Courier, offer a rare glimpse into the kind of allegations that South Carolina allows judges to face in secret.

The Disciplinary Counsel’s office, an investigative arm of the state Supreme Court, receives more than 200 complaints against the state’s judges each year. But those investigations almost never lead to a judge being removed or even publicly reprimanded.

It’s one of myriad ways that South Carolina allows government officials to police themselves and escape public scrutiny. Through its investigative series Uncovered, The Post and Courier has partnered with local newspapers to crack the lid on the state’s broken system of ethical oversight.

It’s a state where serious allegations of illegal or improper behavior by police, teachers, mayors, county council members and other officials are kept tucked away in government offices in Columbia, or shielded from the public entirely.

But, as The Post and Courier first revealed in a joint 2019 investigation with ProPublica, few systems are as lenient and cloaked in secrecy as the one overseeing the state’s judges.

Bound by confidentiality protections that far exceed what South Carolina offers to other officials, the state’s disciplinary office shares its work with no one. And unlike almost every other state, South Carolina has gone decades without publicly sanctioning any of the state’s powerful circuit judges despite more than 1,000 complaints, the news organizations found.

The latest cases show how judges of South Carolina’s lower courts also escape public scrutiny. Magistrates and municipal judges, collectively the state’s busiest judges, handle hundreds of thousands of low-level criminal and civil cases a year.

They do not have to be attorneys, a profession steeped in legal and ethical training. About three-quarters of the state’s magistrates lack a law license, The Post and Courier and ProPublica reported in 2019.

Now, confidential records obtained by The Post and Courier show that sitting judges have been accused of abusing their positions or breaking the law. Yet the judges have remained on the bench for years while disciplinary officials pore over the allegations in secret.

It’s nearly impossible for the public to determine how seriously the allegations are taken. The disciplinary agency shields access to its investigative files.

And there’s no way of knowing if delays result from understaffing — a spokeswoman would not even tell a reporter how many full-time employees work for the agency. The agency also declined to make its top official, John Nichols, available for an interview.

Left in the dark are the public, the people who file complaints and even politicians who are responsible for appointing judges.

Questionable Actions

Chester County Magistrate Angel Underwood has held on to her job as one of the county’s five magistrates despite a string of controversies.

First, the Supreme Court suspended her for a year as disciplinary investigators discovered she had failed to disqualify herself from more than 100 cases brought by the Chester County Sheriff’s Office while her husband, Alex Underwood, was the elected sheriff.

Then, the Chester News & Reporter revealed that Underwood successfully petitioned then-County Supervisor Shane Stuart to pay her $39,000 for the time she was suspended. The lump sum payment was legally questionable, since the Supreme Court had already advised the county it didn’t owe Underwood the money. And it wasn’t approved by the county council, whose members later asked the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate the payment.

In 2019, The Post and Courier and ProPublica reported that Underwood flew first class on the public’s dime to a conference in Reno, Nev., on trips arranged by her husband, the sheriff at the time. Federal prosecutors eventually charged Alex Underwood, alleging he abused his power and skimmed public money to finance the trips.

Whether disciplinary officials have asked Angel Underwood to explain her actions or her use of public money is anybody’s guess. The agency declined to answer questions about the case.

Angel Underwood was never a defendant in the federal case, though her name came up repeatedly in her husband’s trial. Alex Underwood was convicted on seven corruption and abuse charges. He awaits sentencing.

More complaints

Angel Underwood’s ties to her husband’s department led to a 2019 complaint from one of her colleagues, former Chester County Magistrate Barbara Cameron.

In that complaint, obtained by The Post and Courier, Cameron alleged Angel Underwood remained “constantly involved” in the operations of the sheriff’s department while her husband ran it. The judge huddled behind closed doors with top deputies and helped forward crime tips for deputies to follow up on, Cameron wrote in the complaint.

Angel Underwood even presided over a drunken-driving case brought by her husband’s office, then forged Cameron’s name on a court document to cover it up, Cameron alleged.

“The appearance of impartiality and fairness between the departments was laughable,” Cameron wrote in the complaint, which disciplinary officials have yet to resolve.

Angel Underwood also secretly helped deputies draft a complaint against two of her colleagues on the bench, The Post and Courier and ProPublica reported at the time.

In the interim, the county’s new sheriff has filed his own complaint against the judge, alleging Angel Underwood has a bias against the department since her husband’s 2019 ouster.

Sheriff Max Dorsey noted he defeated Alex Underwood in the 2020 election, and that five of Dorsey’s deputies testified in the former sheriff’s trial. Dorsey did not cite specific examples, but a March 15 complaint insisted that Angel Underwood’s handling of any sheriff’s department matters has “great potential to be unfair.”

Until recently, Underwood held the post of chief magistrate. That meant she was in charge of her fellow judges, though held no formal authority to discipline or sanction them. Through his annual selections of chief judges in every county, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty removed her as Chester’s chief magistrate on July 1.

Still, for weeks after her husband’s trial, magistrates under Underwood’s supervision remained tasked with considering criminal warrants submitted by Dorsey’s department. In an interview, Dorsey questioned why those judges had rejected what the sheriff considered to be legitimate requests.

Records from one case, obtained by the newspaper through an open-records request, show a deputy magistrate denied an arrest warrant for a man who published several Facebook posts calling for Chester police and sheriff’s deputies to be killed.

In another, a magistrate rejected a warrant request for a man who allegedly trespassed onto a woman’s property, exposed himself to her and then peed on her husband’s truck.

“I can’t think of another reason why they would be rejected,” Dorsey told the newspaper.

The disciplinary agency didn’t open an investigation into Dorsey’s complaint until June 1, about three weeks after The Post and Courier began asking questions about the issue.

Underwood’s attorney, I.S. Leevy Johnson, declined to comment on what he described as a “false complaint.”

“Our detailed response to the meritless complaint will be contained in our response that we will submit to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in a timely manner,” he said.

The Post and Courier asked Beatty if he had any concerns that the matters against Underwood are still pending. Through Jones, the courts spokeswoman, Beatty did not answer.

Cameron declined to discuss details, but when asked how she felt about the delay, through her lawyer, she gave a one-word answer: “Disgusted.”

An ‘outlier’ system

Some lawmakers have called for a more streamlined system of accountability for the state’s judges.

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, is among those leading the charge for reform. He contends the oversight of lower court judges like magistrates should fall more in line with South Carolina’s circuit judges, who handle all felony and major civil cases.

Those judges are screened in public hearings before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. As it stands, the Disciplinary Counsel is the only one in charge of policing magistrates and municipal judges, who also handle minor criminal offenses.

That’s why it’s critical that when the disciplinary agency receives complaints about those judges, the agency takes the matters seriously and acts quickly, Davis said.

“The lack of responsiveness from (Disciplinary Counsel) or the tolerance for these things is indicative that still the magistrate system is looked at as being an outlier,” Davis said. “That’s something that has to change.”

While Underwood’s complaints have sat pending, to keep her seat on the bench she has needed only the support of Chester’s lone senator, state Sen. Mike Fanning. The Great Falls Democrat has been a close ally to Underwood and her husband for years, endorsing them for public office and regularly posting pictures with the pair.

During the last round of reappointments in 2019, Fanning installed four new magistrates. The only one he kept was Underwood. In an interview, Fanning summed up her performance as magistrate in one word: Outstanding.

Davis’ proposed Magistrate Reform Act would do away with the practice of sole appointments, and add other layers of scrutiny to their appointments.

A separate proposal by Rep. Tommy Stringer, a Greer Republican, called for a legislative panel to investigate the Disciplinary Counsel’s office. But his request, filed in December 2019, has stalled in the state House of Representatives.

The key question for Stringer: Why does South Carolina discipline judges so rarely? Two years later, he hasn’t gotten an answer.

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