We began an investigation back in March 2019.
This investigation involved a series of certified letters and non-certified letters sent to the South Carolina Office of Judicial Counsel and Office of Lawyer Conduct.
We have also obtained recorded phone calls featuring the Office of Judicial Counsel’s John Nichols, South Carolina Rep. Todd Rutherford, and an office manager for South Carolina Rep. Beth Bernstein’s law office.
We picked several judges in South Carolina with checkered pasts, loads of complaints that were featured both lawyer and judge roles, and some with arrest records.
South Carolina Family Court Judge Monet Pincus was selected due to the high amount of complaints against her, the fact she was arrested for marijuana before, and for the fact that she has long been suspected of having a gender bias against fathers.
Numerous litigants approached us stating that it was unfair that they needed to be drug tested for marijuana use given what this judge was arrested for. Many of the litigants presented evidence that they were never arrested before and, even in the cases where some were arrested, it was almost never for a drug-related offense. Yet, Judge Pincus has ordered every one of these people to take drug tests at their own expense.
The cost of these tests can range from $75 to well over $100. Some of these litigants were already paying child support and their own living expenses. They certainly didn’t need another expense and especially if there isn’t already criminal evidence of any wrongdoing which is more than can be said for Judge Pincus.
In July, we gathered those concerns and mailed a letter to the Office of Judicial Conduct. We didn’t attach a return receipt and it wasn’t certified.
There wasn’t a response. We waited patiently for several weeks without anything arriving from that office.
It was time to try again but this time we needed a way to make sure someone actually received the letter.
We sent the exact same letter but this time we had it certified and a return receipt was also purchased from the USPS office that is pretty close to the Office of Judicial Conduct.
Apparently, the mail wasn’t lost this time. There was a response. The office would do nothing. Nothing could be done, as they explained. Anytime such as a concern is presented the usual response from the office is that it is either a, “political matter” or “there isn’t sufficient evidence.”
If you don’t believe this is the case then just review The State Newspaper article featuring the lack of judicial discipline given to judges over a 20+ year time frame.
This first test demonstrated that, as many of the litigants have said, there appears to be an issue where someone will send a letter and not get a response unless they can prove a letter was ever sent in the first place.
As one litigant put it, “You better make sure you get it certified because if you don’t they get dementia and forget what mail is and pretend you didn’t send anything. That’s the game they play. Don’t respond unless someone can prove there was a reason for them to respond.”
We called the Office of Judicial Conduct a grand total of 17 times from the periods of July to December 2019.
Most of the calls were answered by a receptionist who would “relay” messages to the requested party. During these calls, we found ourselves voicing our complaints to these receptionists but finding that we were never transferred to anyone with any semblance of power or authority.
Once again, this was from July to December 2019. With this many phone calls how in the world could it be reasonable that we never got in contact with someone in an authority position until late December 2019?
Conversation with John Nichols
Mr. Nichols called us after we entered the Office of Judicial Conduct and began filming with a cellular device.
Prior to the call, our reporter used the in-office phone to call the office to have someone come down for an interview. The reception told our reporter that someone would “be right down.” To most people that would probably mean someone is coming relatively soon.
After about 15 minutes of waiting, our reporter began recording using their cell phone to document the long wait time despite what was said during the landline phone conversation.
Our reporter departed the office. About 22 minutes later Mr. John Nichols called our reporter and a conversation was established. The entire conversation is recorded.
From the beginning, Mr. Nichols was rather aggressive. Below is a quote of the first words Mr. Nichols spoke right after announcing his identity.
“You came into the office unannounced and demanded a meeting,” he said.
Our reporter had to remind Mr. Nichols that since the Office of Judicial Conduct is public property any citizen could enter, and, if that be the case, there is no such thing as an “unannounced” visit. That’s like saying, “This guy entered a public restroom unannounced.” Such words can express the idea that regular citizens are just peasants who have to announce themselves when they walk on public property and even public property that is on statehouse grounds.
It is also concerning that Mr. Nichols appears to think that people should have to schedule meetings with him. No, it is actually to the contrary. If we, the citizens, have to schedule meetings with the people who receive our tax money then perhaps we, the taxpayers, should schedule when they get paid or not. Regardless if someone is busy or not if that person in state government, and especially someone in Mr. Nichols’ capacity, is in office then the general public asking or even demanding a meeting should never appear to offend him.
Our reporter informed Mr. Nichols that his office only appeared to have responded to letters if they were certified. Mr. Nichols was also told that the only time he decided to give us a call was when we announced we were with the media.
Mr. Nichols denied that he decided to give us a call once we announced to the receptionist that we were from the media. It was explained to Mr. Nichols that it wouldn’t matter if he did or didn’t but the fact that he decided to call only after the point of the media member announcement could give someone a particular impression about his willingness to respond to complaints.
There was a slight back and forth discussing the implications of the two forms of communications being selectively responded to. In the end, Mr. Nichols appeared to have conceded that he understood how this might look to someone and about the perception of the situation.
The conversation went back and forth between our reporter voicing concerns and Mr. Nichols either being aggressive, defensive but, in some cases, he made sense.
Our reporter stated that it sounded like Mr. Nichols sounded equally frustrated with our reporter but also with the entire situation. There are some things that Mr. Nichols simply cannot do. Some litigants expect for both he and his office to fix every problem and punish every judge that is complained about. Sometimes, the complaints just aren’t reasonable or anything his office can act upon. The real issue here is the South Carolina legislator and not so much Mr. Nichols or the Office of Judicial Conduct.
For example, we will use some cases but we will omit names. Complaining about a judge doesn’t mean someone needs to be revealed in order to make a point. We had one case where someone complained because Judge Jan Bromell Holmes terminated their parental rights due to consistent use of cocaine. While we have criticized Judge Holmes before we have to say that in this case, given the extent of the drug use and the behaviors that drug use caused, this was the right call. We cannot in good judgment side with someone who would value cocaine over their own child.
This is a problem. Mr. Nichols appeared very dismissive about any issues. Then again, Pro Publica questioned why there hasn’t been any real public reprimand of any judge outside of a “select” few.
Over the past two decades, more than 1,000 ethics complaints have been lodged against South Carolina judges who handle the state’s major cases in circuit court.
Beyond mere courtroom disputes, the complaints contain serious concerns about abuse of office, including allegations of influence peddling or judges mishandling conflicts of interest.
The number of judges punished publicly as a result: zero.
A judicial ethics watchdog created in 1997 is supposed to aggressively monitor misconduct on the bench. But instead, the system run largely by judges shields the accused and buries complaints, an investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica found.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct shares its work with no one — not even complainants, who receive brief letters telling them when a case has been closed. In thin annual reports, it acknowledges the number of complaints and the type of alleged offenses, but it offers no details.
Unlike in other states, including South Carolina’s neighbors, it’s nearly impossible for the public to know how seriously allegations against the state’s judges are taken.
“I can only do what the law allows,” he said.
He is right. The South Carolina General Assembly is mostly to blame for Mr. Nichols’ constant headaches. If South Carolina lawmakers decided to place more safeguards in place against bad judges, crooked lawyers and questionable court officials then Mr. Nichols’ job would be a lot easier. However, he would also have to do more work. If he, in fact, selectively responds to phone calls when he realizes it is the media then perhaps he doesn’t want more work.
It’s not like he does much work now if anything said about his office is true.
Conversation with South Carolina State Rep. Todd Rutherford
We have a phone conversation with Rep. Rutherford about judicial complaints and complaints lodged against the state of South Carolina.
We expected the same defensiveness that Mr. Nichols displayed. We were surprised to see that Mr. Rutherford was not only 100% willing to talk but he even placed a spotlight on some of the things he has noticed about the South Carolina courts and the complaints process. This is a level of transparency that is to be commended.
There were a few starter questions to see where Mr. Rutherford was on the current state of South Carolina courts. We asked about the family courts and specific biases against fathers.
The answer may surprise you.
“Of course there is gender bias against fathers in family court. You’ve been through it and I’ve been through it,” he said.
We find that interesting. Mr. Rutherford is apart of the South Carolina Judicial Merit Selection Committee that selects South Carolina’s judges. If there is a gender bias then perhaps he could have selected the very judges who display that bias.
When we presented that angle he gave a detailed response that provided a pretty respectable degree of honesty.
“What you have to realize is that judges are human too. They make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. That’s apart of being human,” he said.
What we and what many have appreciated in terms of his response was that he didn’t deny the problem. He admitted a problem existed. In fact, he even said the courts were biased against certain types of people.
We have criticized Rep. Rutherford before but we will say that he does appear to have some desire to see change. He is a father that has been through family court and is a black man. Black men, in particular, appear to suffer disproportionate judgments and unfair practices in South Carolina courts. Rep. Rutherford is a black man with black children. He expressed that is the reason why he wants to see change.
We asked him if he faced bias based on his race.
“Short answer? Of course,” he said.
Rep. Rutherford was actually interested in hearing our ideas for judicial reform in the state of South Carolina. We were pretty pleased with his willingness to at least hear a differing point of view unlike Mr. Nichols. He didn’t pretend that various problems didn’t exist. Some may disagree with the idea of how to tackle these problems.
Rep. Rutherford invited us to attend a South Carolina Judicial Merit Selection Committee hearing and we are going to take him up on his offer.
Long story short? Don’t bother. If you have a way of fixing a problem yourself in a legal and ethical way then you should probably do that. Otherwise, if you hold your breath waiting for help, and in some cases, even a response from anyone remotely involved in South Carolina politics or the statehouse then prepare to run out of air.