An attorney who works in a state senator’s law firm is Spartanburg County’s new master-in-equity judge – less than three months after the county’s legislative delegation, of which the senator is a member, quietly nominated her.
The Senate and House this week confirmed Shannon Phillips, an attorney in Sen. Scott Talley’s law firm, for the judgeship after Gov. Henry McMaster appointed her to a six-year term, based on the delegation’s recommendation.
Talley, R-Spartanburg, was appointed to the state judicial screening committee just two months before the legislatively controlled panel in November qualified Phillips for the seat held by Gordon Cooper, whose term expires June 30.
The Nerve in December revealed that the county master-in-equity oversees cases in areas of law practiced by the firm, and that Talley had recently represented a defendant in a dismissed foreclosure case before Cooper.
Master-in-equity judges typically hear foreclosure and other real estate cases. Talley’s law firm handles those matters, as well as other types of civil and criminal cases, according to the firm’s website.
The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out legislative delegations’ power over the judiciary, revealing in 2019, for example, that one senator in 12 counties controls the appointment of that county’s magistrates.
Lawmakers also control the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), which qualified Phillips for the Spartanburg County master-in-equity seat. Under state law, six of the 10 members are House and Senate lawmakers – currently all of whom are lawyers, including Talley.
Neither Talley nor Phillips responded to phone messages Thursday from The Nerve seeking comment. In December’s Nerve story, Talley said he didn’t participate in any of the JMSC’s November screenings for the four master-in-equity candidates, including Phillips.
He also said then he didn’t believe that as a member of the 13-member county legislative delegation, it would be a conflict of interest for him to later vote to nominate Phillips.
The other three qualified candidates dropped out before the delegation formally nominated Phillips on Feb. 16, delegation meeting minutes show.
State ethics law bans public officials from using their positions to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”
No one has accused Talley, a former state House member who was first elected to the Senate in 2016, of any wrongdoing.
Master-in-equity judges have the same authority as circuit judges in non-jury civil cases. But they are chosen through a different process under state law.
The JMSC first screens and decides which candidates to qualify. Records show that then-commission chairman Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, appointed Talley, a Judiciary Committee member, to the JMSC on Sept. 25.
Under state law, Rankin, as the Judiciary Committee chairman, appoints three JMSC members; and Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, appoints two members. House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, appoints the other five members.
County legislative delegations, made up of senators and House members who represent their respective counties, recommend qualified master-in-equity candidates to the governor.
The governor decides whether to accept a delegation’s nomination. The full Senate and House each decides whether to confirm candidates appointed by the governor.
South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in selecting judges.
The JMSC qualified Phillips after a public screening hearing on Nov. 30. The Spartanburg County delegation held a public meeting on Feb. 1; the master-in-equity nominations were not listed in minutes of that meeting, though the delegation discussed an unspecified “personnel matter” in a closed executive session at the end of the meeting.
Talley attended that meeting, according to the minutes. He also was present at the Feb. 16 delegation meeting when Phillips was nominated, though the minutes didn’t specify who voted for her. The entire meeting lasted less than 15 minutes, records show.
Unlike the Monday Feb. 1 meeting, which was held at 5:30 p.m. in the Spartanburg County administrative office building, minutes show that the Tuesday Feb. 16 meeting was held at 10:30 a.m. in the Blatt Building on the State House grounds in Columbia while the Legislature was session – a time and place likely not convenient for many Spartanburg County residents.
A notice of that meeting was “mailed/emailed in advance to the local news media and other interested parties” in compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, according to the minutes.
Neither Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, who is the delegation chairman, nor Peeler, who is a delegation member, responded to phone messages Thursday from The Nerve seeking comment.
Contacted Thursday by The Nerve, delegation member Sen. Josh Kimbrell, R-Spartanburg, declined to say specifically whether the delegation discussed Phillips’ nomination at the Feb. 1 closed executive session.
“I’m not going to speak to the executive session,” Kimbrell said, noting, “Those are off-the-record discussions because we’re interviewing people and talking about their personal details.”
The state’s open-records law allows officials to hold closed meetings to discuss the appointment of a person to a public body. But it also requires the presiding officer to announce the “specific purpose” of the executive session before a vote to go into the session.
Kimbrell said that “every single (master-in-equity) candidate has had a chance to speak with every member of the Spartanburg delegation,” though when asked why the delegation didn’t interview the candidates in an open public meeting before voting on the nomination, he replied, “That’s not how these races work.”
“If you ever spend any time in this body, when there’s a judicial race, whether it’s a circuit court or a master-in-equity race,” Kimbrell said, “the individual candidates typically meet with the individual senator. That was the process that we largely followed. I met with everybody individually, and every one of my colleagues did.”
“There is no election,” he continued, “where there is a public forum because there are personal details that are being discussed,” though he didn’t give any examples of “personal details.”
At the Feb.16 delegation meeting, Kimbrell made a motion for a “favorable report” on Phillips’ nomination, according to the meeting minutes.
Asked Thursday what specifically senators discussed with him, Spartanburg attorney Shane Rogers, who was one of the four qualified master-in-equity candidates, said only, “It sounds to me like that may be questions better directed to the delegation members.”
The other two qualified candidates – Whitner Bishop and Tommy Wall – didn’t return phone messages Thursday from The Nerve.
The 46-member Senate on Wednesday and 124-member House on Thursday confirmed Phillips’ appointment, though Senate records didn’t list a roll-call vote. The House approved the nomination by a vote of 81-0, with five of the eight Spartanburg County House members participating, records show.
In a related matter Thursday, the online JMSC member list was updated to include Talley; the list as of Feb. 11 didn’t include him. Asked whether Talley was removed from the commission earlier this year and reinstated following Phillips’ confirmation, JMSC attorney Erin Crawford in a written reply said: “He was not taken off and added on. It was a clerical error on our part.”
Asked in the December Nerve story if he or other attorneys in his law firm could have future cases before Phillips if she became the master-in-equity, Talley replied, “She would have to make that decision; I think that the law allows that.”