- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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Dec. 14

Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, South Carolina, on choosing good magistrates:

State Sen. Lee Bright has pre-filed a bill that should spur discussion about the way South Carolina chooses magistrates.

The selection process makes it seem as if magistrates aren’t important. There are minimal qualifications. A magistrate is not required to have a law degree, and is usually appointed by a single politician.

The law states that magistrates are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate, but in practice a state senator appoints a magistrate. In counties with multiple senators, each senator is usually allotted a magistrate’s position that he can fill. In counties with only one senator, that senator appoints magistrates. The governor’s office and the Senate go along with each senator’s pick. It is a tradition of political patronage cherished by senators.

The appointments often go to those who have helped the senator get elected. It’s not the best way to choose judges.

Despite the arbitrary and haphazard method of choosing magistrates, these officials are important. They determine whether the police can come to your home and search it. They decide whether you can be arrested. And if you are arrested, they often determine whether you can be released on bond or have to stay in jail.

We need a system that chooses the best people for the job and that doesn’t subject magistrates to the instability that comes from being a political appointee. Magistrates deserve to know that if they do their jobs well, they can keep their positions, without worrying about who will win the next state Senate election.

Bright’s bill would take magistrate selection away from senators and allow the resident Circuit Court judges in an area to select the magistrates. He said he doesn’t think his fellow senators will support the change, but he wants to further the discussion.

He is absolutely right about senators’ unwillingness to give up their power over the magistrates, but South Carolinians can hope he’s right about spurring consideration of change. Bright said he got the idea for his plan from congressman and former circuit solicitor Trey Gowdy, who told him that this is how the federal court chooses magistrates.

Bright says senators aren’t going to be willing to give up their ability to appoint their cronies until the people demand change. We need to start making that demand.

Online:

https://www.goupstate.com

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Dec. 17

Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina, on the FIOA reform:

Legislation to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regrettably died in this Congress on the very verge of enactment. The issues that apparently killed the reforms should be quickly resolved, and Congress should be strongly encouraged to enact an improved FOIA process early next year.

The worthwhile purpose of the FOIA reforms is to speed up the process and reduce the cost of obtaining public records and to narrow the exceptions that government agencies may use to withhold documents.

FOIA reforms passed the Senate and House unanimously, but in slightly different versions. The reforms would be law by now if the Senate had simply accepted the House version of the bill. Instead, the Senate added several provisions including language requiring agencies to identify a specific “foreseeable harm” before withholding documents recording executive decision-making. Those withheld documents would also be opened to the public after 25 years.

The Justice Department and the banking industry objected to the Senate version. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who leaves the Senate next month, said the Senate bill could “potentially give defendants new ways to obstruct and delay investigations into their conduct.”

Congress should pass the strongest bill possible, so it was reasonable for House Speaker John Boehner to refuse to bring the Senate version of the FOIA bill to the House floor without further study. The Speaker, however, should be obliged to give the FOIA reforms a fast track next year.

Improvements to open government shouldn’t be viewed as merely optional.

Online:

https://www.postandcourier.com

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Dec. 17

Aiken (South Carolina) Standard on flood challenges ahead for DSS:

Despite the recent naming of a new director for the state’s Department of Social Services, the fresh start the agency so badly needs still hangs in question.

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley selected Susan Alford to head the embattled agency, and she is set to take over on Jan. 5, but must be confirmed by the state legislature.

Alford’s qualifications seems to fit at least some of those needed to run the state’s child-welfare agency after a career centered around serving youth. Since 2007, she has served as the director of the Girls Center at Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute. The center serves more than 100,000 young people annually. It’s also a smart move by Haley to pick someone from within the state.

The previous director, Lillian Koller, who resigned in June, left the position after heavy criticism from lawmakers, which was particularly sparked by the deaths children in the agency’s care that happened while she was in charge.

Koller was actually hand-picked by Haley from the same agency in Hawaii, and even left there amid a cloud of legal questions after a lawsuit was brought against the state involving delays in the distribution of food stamps.

After she took over the agency in South Carolina, she was applauded by some for trying to make changes, but ultimately was seen by many as creating a culture too attached to data and trying to make the agency’s “numbers” looked good. Even when she resigned, Haley praised Koller for her efforts in closing a $28 million budget deficit, and helping to put more South Carolinians to work.

His fellow subcommittee members have also co-sponsored a bill that would essentially remake Social Services and split some of its duties among other agencies. This is a bold move, but one that needs considerable and meticulous consideration before moving forward.

Social Services is a massive agency, and taking a proverbial bulldozer to it could do more harm than good. That’s not to say the department doesn’t need serious reform.

The agency has been marred by too many real life horror stories, and it can’t be allowed to continue on such a path.

One of the first steps in that process is selecting a legitimately qualified individual who is willing and able to take over the agency amid possible massive changes.

When lawmakers return to Columbia in January, this will undoubtedly be a priority among a growing list of problems to tackle in the state.

This is a situation, however, that’s not just changes to funding or a bureaucratic structure. This directly impacts thousands of families across the state. Careful and prudent steps are needed.

Online:

https://www.aikenstandard.com

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