South Carolina Judges Routinely Seal Court Orders

Dion McNeil

If one were to perform any basic web search about South Carolina in terms of its judiciary system an article from Pro Publica may pop up. This article is asking for the citizens of South Carolina to come forward with their stories about complaints against judges.

Does any part of that seem odd to you?

Don’t you think that people on the internet wouldn’t need to be asked to come forward with complaints about judges? People have to be asked to come forward about parking ticket fines and a judge who upheld those fines? Something has to be wrong here and if you know anything about how many judges in the state of South Carolina operate you’d know the likely culprit.

The culprit is gag orders.

What many will not find are the details of many high profile court cases. For example, FitsNews outlined the John McGill saga and how Richland County Family Court Judge Monet Pincus had the whole court details sealed away. That is just one example of a high profile case involving the offspring of politicians, 911 calls, domestic violence and many other disturbing details.

Family court is where many say these gag orders are about as common as flies to a dead body in this state. Usually, the justification for these gag orders or records being sealed that is given revolves around, “the best interest of the child.” That, of course, could mean anything and especially given the wild array of differentials in judgement. It could mean that someone doesn’t want the information about the case being revealed when there is a blatantly one-sided affair with the judge involved or it could just mean that the sons of politicians have too much influence.

If we take another look at the Pro Publica public service announcement of an article we can see where some of these problems may be coming from.

Quote from the article:

A judicial disciplinary office created in 1997 is supposed to aggressively monitor misconduct on the bench. But how many of these judges were punished as a result of two decades of stepped-up scrutiny? Zero.

It’s almost impossible to know how seriously allegations are taken by the disciplinary office, the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The little-known agency works in secret, shielding its records even from those who filed complaints. Judges may disclose the information, but few are willing to share. Lawyers withhold grievances out of fear of retaliation from judges before whom they often appear.

Pro Publica. https://www.propublica.org/getinvolved/have-a-complaint-about-a-south-carolina-judge-help-us-investigate

What Pro Publica and what many publications are trying to convey is that these judges are taking their cues from the very commission on judicial conduct they are supposed to be mimicking in terms of professional standards. One can’t be surprised that judges want their rulings to be secret if the people that are supposed to be handing out punishments treat the complaints against those same judges like a top CIA secret about North Korean space aliens.

Whenever one finds themselves dealing with an authoritarian they’ll always notice that the authoritarian wants secrecy and not to be judged in the worst light. Trying to fix this system is like trying to put make-up on a pig and that is difficult enough without that pig banning you from talking about how it waddles in the mud. An in-depth look into some of these “sealings” that are just gag orders by any other name will reveal a more troubling pattern.

South Carolina was once regarded as a state with some of the strictest anti-secrecy laws put in place for the judiciary in the whole country. Now? That idea is about as laughable as some of the reasoning for sealing records. If a judge seals a record in this state, by law, there has to be a consideration of the public’s interest. If you had a state employee doing something that was inappropriate or something that, at even a 1% value, is of the interest to the public then the judge is supposed to reject the order for a seal.

That isn’t what usually happens here in South Carolina.

The Island Packet took an in-depth look into judges in Beaufort County, South Carolina. According to the article, there were judges sealing records without any consideration to the public’s interest and, in some cases, the disregarding of rules set in place for seal-or-not-to-seal situations.

Of course, some could say that these court documents being sealed away in Beaufort, South Carolina is just a judge sealing away something that they thought didn’t belong in the public’s view.

There is a little more to the story.

The judge involved in the case that the Island Packet wanted to observe was Judge Gordon “Bubber” Jenkinson. The Island Packet’s account reveals some interesting details.

“Permission forms are not required for reporters seeking to observe a court proceeding. Forms are required for photographers and videographers. “You don’t need a form to sit there and listen to what’s going on,” according to Vanessa Bryan, division chief of Beaufort County Family Court. “I don’t know if that information got to the judge correctly. You don’t need to fill out a form just to sit in the courtroom.”

The judge, Gordon “Bubber” Jenkinson, was in Beaufort County Family Court on temporary assignment from Kingstree, S.C. Jenkinson declined to discuss his decision to close the courtroom, so it’s not clear why he relied on a deputy sheriff to explain the rules, or why he thought rules that are uniform throughout the state could be different in Beaufort County.”

The Island Packet. https://www.islandpacket.com/news/local/community/beaufort-news/article33583536.html

However, there is a funny pattern that South Carolina judges such as Monet Pincus, Gordon “Bubber” Jenkinson and many others have displayed. They seal orders where there are high-profiled individuals involved. There are also South Carolinians who have said that anyone who has any sort of dirt on state employees, and especially in family court, that person has a tendency to have their entire case sealed and if they speak about the case they’ll be retaliated against in court.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

Well, it gets even worse. The South Carolina Commission on Judicial Conduct is an office that is supposed to discipline judges who pull stunts like sealing away court documents even when it is pretty clear it would be of the public’s interest.

Lets do a quick experiment. If such a commission existed and there were judges sealing away records and documents like a sorcerer banishing a demon to unknown realms then wouldn’t one expect that commission to be handing out reprimands like candy? How many public reprimands has that office produced, would you say? 10? 20? 100?

Try 0.

Yes, that’s right. Even when one reveals to this rather laughable excuse for a commission on judicial conduct that there are judges out there who believe they are above rules and above the law there won’t be a single thing done about. In fact, the commission doesn’t even reveal their findings to the public or, in many cases, to the person who filed a complaint.

Let’s just hope they don’t find a way to seal away all of our freedoms and interests.

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