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South Carolina Magistrate Judges Don't Need Law Degrees To Handle Lower-Level Cases


In South Carolina, magistrate judges handle thousands of lower-level criminal and civil cases every year. And they don't need law degrees to do it. South Carolina lets just about anyone sit as a judge. Getting that seat is often a matter of trading favors with state legislators.

The Post and Courier's Joey Cranney worked with ProPublica to dig into this system, and he joins me now. Welcome.

JOEY CRANNEY: Thank you so much.

CHANG: So I understand that not all states have magistrate judges. What do the magistrate judges in South Carolina do specifically?

CRANNEY: They handle the bulk of the state's criminal and civil cases, everything from traffic tickets to DUIs to civil cases, including evictions. And they're basically just in charge of clearing dockets so that other judges in the state have the time to handle more serious matters, like felony cases and major civil cases.

CHANG: OK. So I want to get into some of your reporting here. You found that nearly 75% of South Carolina's magistrate judges do not have law degrees. How do you qualify to become a magistrate judge in South Carolina, then?

CRANNEY: They preside with very little of the traditional qualifications of a judge. They don't have to be lawyers. A requirement passed by the state in 2005 mandated that they have a four-year degree. Other than that, they have to pass basically a basic competency exam.

CHANG: Huh. Is it a legal test?

CRANNEY: It sure is not. It's a commonsense test. I actually took the test.


CRANNEY: There are two tests. One of them was a 12-minute online test. It was multiple choice. And the test included questions such as - what is the smallest number and what is the earliest date?

CHANG: What is the rationale for not requiring a law degree to become a magistrate judge in South Carolina?

CRANNEY: South Carolina has many rural, small counties where there are very few lawyers. So to preside in a county, the magistrate has to actually live in that county. So we have a county here with a population of about 9,000 people. There are two magistrate seats in that county, and the county only has three lawyers.

CHANG: Oh, I see.

CRANNEY: So the idea is you need to have a large enough pool of people that you can draw from to fill these seats.

CHANG: OK. But you found that a number of these magistrate judges got the law really, really wrong in important ways. Can you just give us a few examples?

CRANNEY: We found that dozens of magistrates over the past couple of decades have either misapplied the law or committed other serious abuses. There's a judge in Lexington County who's accused in a pending federal lawsuit that she's been systematically rejecting people's constitutional protections and shuttling them through what's been effectively like an assembly line of guilty pleas.

Another more serious case was a barber and a barbecue shop owner. But a state senator who appointed him was a longtime friend and insisted he could learn on the job. The judge helped spring a relative out of jail.


CRANNEY: And the man was locked up on assault charges. And five days after he got out of jail, the man murdered his wife.

CHANG: This is really unbelievable. Are you getting the sense that there is real urgency in South Carolina to address these problems, to actually change the system? I mean, what are you hearing from people?

CRANNEY: It seems like there may be. You know, we've had dozens of magistrates who have been disciplined. There's a very significant federal lawsuit pending in federal court in South Carolina. We think that lawmakers, when they take this session in a couple of months, this might be one of the things that they're eyeing. It'll be interesting to see if they add any requirements for more educational or legal training before magistrates take the bench or if they adopt any processes to allow for more scrutiny of magistrates so that some of these prior offenses might come to light.

CHANG: That is Joey Cranney of the Post and Courier from Charleston. Thank you very much for joining us today.

CRANNEY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.