The use of non-lawyer local justices in upstate New York has long been fertile ground for ridicule and outrage. Between astounding incompetent, rampant corruption and ethical violations, it’s enough to make your head explode, Then again, the groundlings argue that this is justice closest to the people, rather than that elitist stuff they puff in real courts where judges have to be, you know, lawyers.
ProPublica notes that it’s no different in South Carolina.
These courtrooms, the busiest in the state, dispose of hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor criminal cases and civil disputes each year.
They are overseen by political appointees, selected through a process that often places connections over qualifications. It’s a system that’s unlike any other in the country, and one that has provided fertile ground for incompetence, corruption and other abuse.
To be fair, placing connections over qualifications isn’t exactly a problem limited to non-lawyer mags in the south, but I digress.
The trial that upended Sasha Darby’s life lasted just 11 minutes.
She had struck her roommate during a spat and found herself charged with assault. Standing alone at the defendant’s table that day, she tried to argue that the attack was self-defense. But Magistrate Rebecca Adams cut her off.
“You did hit her?” the judge interjected. “We’re having this trial, why?”
“I’m not sure,” Darby replied, stumbling over her words. “I’m not really familiar with legal terms.”
The 26-year-old forklift driver couldn’t afford a lawyer, and Adams didn’t ask Darby if she wanted the court to appoint one. The ACLU would later say in a lawsuit that omission violated the Constitution. And by refusing to hear Darby out, the judge blocked her right to defend herself, court experts contend.
“I’m gonna find you guilty, by your own admission,” said Adams, a former law enforcement agent who has never practiced law.
There is an awful lot wrong with what happened to Sasha Darby, not the least of which is that it doesn’t appear to have been a trial at all, as trials would start with the prosecution calling its first witness, not the defendant arguing from her table. And then, as thoughtful as it is that the ACLU has taken up her cause after the fact on one of the myriad problems with the case, it would have been even nicer if she had competent representation at trial before she was found guilty and saw her life crumble.
Then again, in the general scheme of ordinary unconstitutionality, this was fairly pedestrian. And lest it go unnoticed, the offending judge wasn’t the usual representative of the Patriarchy employing his toxic masculinity to oppress the female defendants. Maybe bad judges, like bad cops, really aren’t a gender issue at all?
Magistrates sit in judgment on cases involving petty thefts, drunken driving, domestic violence, assaults and disorderly conduct. They also issue arrest warrants, set bail, preside over trials and conduct preliminary hearings to assess if there is sufficient probable cause to support felony charges such as murder, rape and robbery.
Unlike most states, South Carolina doesn’t require its magistrates to have law degrees. Over the years, their numbers have included construction workers, insurance agents, pharmacists — even an underwear distributor. Once selected, they undergo fewer hours of mandated training than the Palmetto State requires of its barbers, masseuses and nail salon technicians.
This obviously reflects how those corrupt southern politicians refuse to reform a grossly dishonest system so they have favors to give their friends, who can then abuse the system for their own benefit. Except this system in horrible South Carolina is no different than in New York, and other states that allow non-lawyer local judges to play petty gods.
Supporters of the current system insist magistrates perform a valuable service for the state, handling some 800,000 criminal and civil cases each year. That takes a hefty burden off the already overloaded dockets of South Carolina’s circuit courts, which handle felony crimes and larger civil claims. And with magistrate courtrooms positioned throughout the state, defendants usually have access to a speedy trial nearby.
They may be incompetent, corrupt and unethical, but they keep the wheels of justice grinding.
“Without a magistrate court, the wheels of justice turn, but they turn slow,” said Judge Danny Singleton, head of the statewide association for magistrates and municipal court judges. “It would probably put us in lockdown mode.”
But as ProPublica snarkily notes, it takes more training to be a barber than to ruin a life. Yet, the grinder has its fans.
“A law degree is not a prerequisite to being a good judge,” he said.
As a stand alone assertion, this might be not entirely untrue, but knowledge of law, particularly of the procedure necessary to afford a litigant due process, is kind of important and, to many, not entirely intuitive. But they do have to observe some trials and take a test.
Another key prerequisite is that magistrates pass a competency exam.
These tests require a sixth-grade reading level and knowledge of “basic mathematics, how to tell time, days of the week,” according to a court administrator’s memo.
In fairness, there is no test that conclusively proves federal judges know how to tell time, even if they are required to be lawyers. Then again, there’s nothing in the Constitution requiring Supreme Court justices to be lawyers, so being a South Carolina magistrate could well be a stepping stone to greatness, provided no one catches you doing the dirty along the way, even if you didn’t know the clean from the dirty because you weren’t a lawyer.
“I did not mean to violate any standard. It was a lack of education that led me to it,” he said.
“I didn’t know any better.”
This wasn’t the plea allocution of a defendant before a South Carolina magistrate, but the explanation from Arthur Bryngelson, a construction worker who chaired the county GOP, who learned that he wasn’t cut out to be a judge. Go figure.