Ninth Circuit Solicitor's Race is a Battle of Endorsements

by Bennett Bozarth
Charleston Mercury
Published: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 4:21 PM EDT
No Democrat has filed for the solicitor’s election in the Ninth Circuit (comprising Berkeley and Charleston counties), so the June 10 Republican primary will decide which of the late Ralph Hoisington’s young former deputies will succeed him. Candidates Scarlett Wilson (40) and Blair Jennings (37), both of whom Hoisington had placed at the Charleston and Berkeley offices respectively at the commencement of his term in 2001, speak affectionately and reverently of the man whose mantle they claim. Wilson spoke movingly at Hoisington’s funeral at The Citadel last June. Jennings proudly touts the endorsement of Hoisington’s widow.

In the recent national primary elections, the public has been treated to the sight of candidates being forced to rein in their exuberant supporters whose criticisms of another candidate exceeded tolerable bounds. By contrast, this contest has seen a rare joint declaration by the sheriffs of the Ninth Circuit’s constituent counties. Sheriff Al Cannon of Charleston County (endorsing Wilson) and Jennings’s current boss, Sheriff Wayne De Witt of Berkeley County (endorsing Jennings), have publicly announced that they will gladly work with whichever candidate should gain the public’s favor.

While being interviewed for this article, Sheriff Al Cannon, himself an attorney, emphasized the splendid qualifications of both candidates and pointed out that his more extensive experience with Wilson had influenced his decision to endorse her. Sheriff DeWitt voiced similar comments to the Mercury: being in Berkeley County, Sheriff DeWitt has had more personal contact with Jennings. Watching Jennings prosecute cases in Berkeley impressed DeWitt so much that he created the job of “legal counsel” for Jennings after Jennings left the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office in September of 2007. In that capacity, DeWitt mentioned, Jennings has successfully closed down two troublesome Berkeley County nightclubs and prepared a 2:00 a.m. club closing ordinance.

It was personal observation that led to Jennings’s coveted endorsement by the South Carolina PBA, according to the organization’s president, Goose Creek Police Dept. Lieutenant Dave Soderberg. “[W]e’ve been able to do a lot of research respecting these two candidates,” remarked Soderberg. “Soon after Blair took over the Berkeley office [in 2001], it was obvious that things would be different than they were under previous administrations. Blair reached out to us. He’d come out to homicide scenes. We hadn’t seen that before. He really built up relationships in this area. We’ve seen that Blair’s been really dedicated for the whole seven years — not just when he’s been running for the office. His core beliefs are in line with those of our membership … [which] includes law enforcement officers from both Charleston and Berkeley Counties,” said Soderberg.

Experience, indeed, is what each candidate highlights with respect to his or her credentials. For the benefit of those who are new to the Lowcountry, some explanation of the term “solicitor” is necessary to appreciate the significance of the experience that each candidate claims. In other areas of the nation, the chief prosecutor may be called “the district attorney” or “the county prosecutor.” Here, he or she is the “solicitor.” Typically, such officials decide what charges to prosecute in connection with serious crimes. In South Carolina, those matters within the district solicitor’s purview are offenses carrying potential penalties beyond 30 days incarceration (to be handled in the General Sessions Court) and criminal domestic violence cases heard in the local magistrate courts. The solicitor’s

 office prosecutes both adults and juveniles.

According to Wilson, 12,500 new warrants were issued in Charleston County and 3400 in Berkeley County in FY 2007. To handle that volume, the solicitor’s office in the Ninth Circuit employs 115 people. The staff is split between the Charleston County office and the Berkeley County office in proportions that roughly reflect the size of the caseloads:  32 attorneys and ten investigators in Charleston County; and, eight attorneys and two investigators in Berkeley County.

In the absence of any statistical measure for the quality of justice, court systems throughout the country measure the “movement” of cases. To meet the “benchmark” standard set by the South Carolina Supreme Court, no more than 80 percent of a district’s cases may be more than 180 days old. None of the 16 districts in the state meets that standard. According to the Supreme Court’s official Web site, only 60 percent of the state’s top scoring district’s caseload is less than 180 days old. As of March 31, 2008, the Ninth Circuit placed fourth in the state with 42 percent. Although Court Administration allots the number of court days available, it is the district solicitor who practically controls which cases are called to trial. Therefore, the solicitor bears significant responsibility for management of the caseload. Wilson proudly points to improved clearance under the Hoisington administration: “[w]hen Solicitor Hoisington and I took over, the Ninth Circuit was in 13th place. When … Hoisington was diagnosed [with cancer] in December of 2006, we were in 7th place.” In the months since Wilson’s appointment by Governor Sanford to fill Hoisington’s unexpired term, the Ninth Circuit has risen to fourth place. Wilson notes that the Ninth Circuit’s high rating is particularly notable given the fact that her district leads the state in “index” crimes:  that is, crimes serious enough to be included in a widely-reported crime index. Such crimes typically include the most violent, which are frequently time-consuming to investigate, to prepare and to try.

Jennings points to his own record of backlog reduction when he ran the Berkeley office. “When I arrived in Berkeley County,” Jennings stated, “Thirty percent of the cases were over one year old.” Jennings claims that, by the time he left the office in 2007, the year-old-plus cases had been reduced to 11 percent. Jennings credits that backlog reduction with his administrative innovations:  a revamped court appearance system and a new trial docketing system.

Like Jennings, Wilson prides herself on her trial skills. She claims to have been personally involved since 2001 in the trials of more accused murderers than did the entire attorney staff of the Berkeley office put together. Nevertheless, it was her administrative skills that Sheriff Cannon specifically emphasized in explaining his decision to endorse her. “The system,” Cannon said, “is overwhelmed with the numbers.”

The interest shown by the two sheriffs in the solicitor’s election contest is reflective of the importance of cooperation between the solicitor’s office and law enforcement. The need for collaboration in trial preparation and actual prosecution is obvious. What may be less readily apparent to the public is the value of on-going training provided by the solicitor’s office staff to law enforcement officers. Jennings claims to have “revolutionized the working relationship between the solicitor’s office and law enforcement” in Berkeley County. “I worked to provide legal updates on issues such as 4th Amendment [judicial suppression of evidence resulting from unconstitutional over-reaching by law enforcement] …, changes in the Criminal Domestic Violence laws and [DUI] statutes,” Jennings added. “I also provided training on courtroom presentation to assist officers on the presentation of their cases in magistrate’s court.”

As for Wilson, she cites a very recent cooperative project “…with Chief Mullen in bringing a nationally-recognized expert … to our area ….” for three days’ worth of “training for officers in the Tri-County area ….” Wilson also points to an “expert in the field of child sexual assaults” who regularly (as part of the Special Victims’ Unit created by Wilson) “provides guidance to law enforcement on these delicate cases.”

The “overwhelming” numbers cited by Sheriff Cannon are important to the citizenry not only for public safety reasons, but also for impact on the local tax burden. Housing prisoners who are awaiting trial is done at local expense. Chronic overcrowding of holding facilities creates pressure to resolve cases quickly so that convicts can be passed on to state facilities. Wilson points to her ongoing cooperative efforts with law enforcement and the defense bar in accelerating the arrest-to-disposition process. Another aspect of jail over-crowding is bail. Although it would seem at first glance that easy admission to bail would reduce the number of detainees awaiting trial, Wilson argues that easy bail allows repeat offenders to perpetrate more crime as they await trial on other offenses. The phenomenon of quick release of arrested recidivists who regain their freedom of action only to commit more crime is known as “the revolving door.” Public safety considerations, Wilson feels, require intervention by the solicitor’s office in the setting of bail by the judiciary.

The public has an additional economic stake in the management of the solicitor’s office: according to Wilson, the 2008 fiscal year budget for the Charleston County office is $7.5 million, of which Charleston County provides almost 70 percent. For the Berkeley County office, the budget is just over $1 million, of which Berkeley County pays slightly more than 70 percent.

The public’s interest goes beyond economic and safety issues:  Its greatest access to information about local crime is provided by the media. Wilson points out that the Supreme Court prohibits prosecutors “from making statements that have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing the defendant.” Furthermore, Wilson claims to be especially protective of the privacy of victims. Consequently, Wilson says, the salient facts have usually already been revealed by the normal workings of the process by the time she feels permitted to comment publicly. This attitude is in marked contrast to Durham County, North Carolina, Prosecutor Michael Nifong’s defamatory pre-trial statements in 2006 about Duke University lacrosse team defendants who were later exonerated. That matter highlighted the wide discretionary power that a headline-hunting prosecutor could so easily abuse, and it raised questions as to whether elected prosecutors are especially tempted to establish a recognizable public reputation on the backs of persecuted defendants.

That commitment to justice (as opposed to merely a high conviction rate) is an attitude that Wilson and Jennings are careful to instill in their staff. Most frequently, incoming attorneys are hired from among the law school clerks and college interns whose service with the office has allowed them to become imbued with a particular ethos. Both Jennings and Wilson look for the prospect’s dedication to prosecution as a career rather than as a stepping stone.

Although Jennings and Wilson agree about the importance of the solicitor being a career prosecutor, each highlights some distinctions between his/her qualifications and those of his/her opponent. Wilson calls her six and one half years’ worth of experience as an assistant U.S. attorney an invaluable experience partly because in the federal system, unlike the South Carolina system, she handled the appeals of the cases which she tried at the trial court level. Being “appeal conscious” enables a trial attorney to make better evaluative judgments when weighing the probative value of certain evidence versus its likelihood of creating an appealable issue, Wilson claims.

Jennings, on the other hand, says, “Federal and state systems are so different it [federal experience] does not prepare you for running a solicitor’s office.” On the other hand, Wilson’s continuing designation as a special assistant U.S. attorney pays dividends in the context of joint federal/local enforcement action. While acknowledging the value of Jennings’s experience as Hoisington’s deputy in charge of the Berkeley office, Wilson claims that managing the far larger Charleston office and caseload is “exponentially” different than managing the smaller office. She foresees, however, the growth of the Berkeley office’s caseload and staff as that county continues its rapid development. Wilson notes that she is already experienced in dealing with a much larger volume operation.

Wilson’s on-the-job performance has gotten the attention of someone who should know what the job will require, namely former Ninth Circuit Solicitor and Attorney General Charlie Condon. “I think that Governor Sanford chose wisely in choosing Scarlett [to succeed Solicitor Hoisington],” Condon told the Mercury. Drawing on his own long experience, Condon emphasized the varied mix of urban and rural situations in the district and the logistical difficulties posed by such a large area. Praising her innovations (such as aggressive action to revoke the bail of repeat offenders), Condon also noted that managing a group of attorneys can be especially challenging. “Under her, morale [in the office] has been high,” Condon said. While stressing the importance of good trial skills and proficiency in the use of modern technological aids, Condon underscored the necessity for vision and dedication to justice on the part of the solicitor. Calling her character “sterling” and her integrity “beyond reproach,” Condon added that “ she brings the complete package to the job.”

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