South Carolina’s supreme court to be entirely white for first time in 20 years

<span>The state’s supreme court already came under scrutiny as the nation’s only all-male high court.</span><span>Photograph: NSA Digital Archive/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
The state’s supreme court already came under scrutiny as the nation’s only all-male high court.Photograph: NSA Digital Archive/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the first time in nearly two decades, South Carolina’s supreme court will be entirely white.

Diversity on the bench is a key topic in a state where African Americans and Hispanics make up a third of the population. The state legislature, the general assembly, selects South Carolina’s judges, and it has so rarely chosen jurists of color that Black lawmakers briefly walked out of judicial elections five years ago, outraged over representation.

When a new justice is seated after next week’s election, South Carolina will join 18 other states with all-white high courts, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks diversity and other issues in court systems.

Twelve of those states have populations of at least 20% people of color, the organization reported.

“It’s shameful. Whether people like it or not, we have a diverse state. The people who appear before the bench are diverse. The judges they appear before should be diverse,” Democratic state representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter said.

Circuit judge Jocelyn Newman was the lone Black candidate for the state supreme court seat coming open because chief justice Don Beatty, the only African American on the high court, had reached the mandatory retirement age of 72.

But Newman dropped out of the race after candidates could begin asking lawmakers for support. That leaves a white man and a white woman as the two remaining candidates.

Candidates for judges typically don’t campaign or speak publicly in South Carolina, outside of hearings in which a panel screens them to see whether they are qualified and narrows the number of candidates sent to lawmakers to three.

South Carolina’s supreme court already came under scrutiny as the nation’s only all-male high court. The justices ruled 4-1 last year to uphold the state’s strict abortion ban at around six weeks after conception, before many women know they are pregnant.

That decision came after the woman who wrote the majority opinion in a 3-2 ruling had to retire because of her age, and lawmakers made minor tweaks in the law, enabling another high-court review.

“Sometimes it’s nice to look up on that bench and see someone that looks like you,” associate justice Kaye Hearn lamented in an interview with South Carolina’s ETV after she left the court.

Beatty’s replacement as chief justice will be John Kittredge, who was unopposed in his separate campaign. Kittredge said: “We have a great system. But if it does not reflect the people of South Carolina, we are going to lose the respect and integrity of the public that we serve.”

Cobb-Hunter pointed out there is only one Black judge on the court of appeals, a pipeline to the supreme court.

The Associated Press contributed reporting