The state’s judicial ethics office is investigating a Greenville circuit judge who issued an arrest warrant for a Lexington County woman who says she has been living as a fugitive since April 2012 in connection with her legal battle for guardianship of her adult disabled daughter.
And, in a related development, Brenda Bryant, who contends she has been forced to live out of state because of the active warrant, has sent letters to the S.C. House and Senate asking lawmakers not to vote for 13th Circuit Judge Edward “Ned” Miller in the judicial election tentatively scheduled for Feb. 4, according to copies of the letter she provided this week to The Nerve. She also said she has notified Gov. Nikki Haley’s and Lt. Gov.-elect Henry McMaster’s offices.
South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges.
“I cannot begin to tell you how this abuse of justice has affected our lives,” wrote the 60-year-old Bryant, who has been jailed twice after being found in contempt of court, in her letters to the Legislature. “I have a home but cannot come back (;) if I do I could go to jail.”
The Nerve profiled Bryant’s case in October. She referenced The Nerve story with her packet of information she sent to the House and Senate this week.
The Nerve this week left written and phone messages for Miller, who has been on the bench since 2002 and serves as the chief administrative general-sessions court judge for Greenville and Pickens counties, but did not receive a response.
Miller on April 2, 2012, issued a bench warrant for Bryant’s “immediate arrest” after finding her in contempt of court for ignoring previous court orders to pay $9,639 to Rodney Pillsbury, an attorney for Tracy Parsons, a court-appointed guardian for Bryant’s intellectually disabled daughter. Bryant contended Parsons, a licensed professional counselor, didn’t do enough to protect her daughter, now 40, from being sexually and physically abused during her stay in a Greenville County group home.
Bryant in 2010 sued Parsons, the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN), the Greenville County Disabilities and Special Needs Board, and others. In issuing the bench warrant for Bryant’s arrest, Miller described her lawsuit as “patently frivolous … to the extent that it included Defendant Tracy Parsons.”
Bryant was initially jailed in September 2011 in Greenville County after Greenville County Associate Probate Judge Edward Sauvain found her in contempt for refusing to pay Parsons $9,338 in court-ordered fees. She told The Nerve she was jailed for 30 days but was released after paying the fees, though she said she made the payment under protest.
After Miller issued his bench warrant, Bryant was arrested and jailed in Asheville, N.C; she told The Nerve she spent six days in jail before being released. A magistrate’s order noted that Bryant “feloniously” fled South Carolina, and that her offense was punishable by “death/1 yr in prison.”
Most of the legal actions against Bryant, who for years had legal guardianship of her daughter before it was stripped by the courts, occurred after she won a major legal victory in 2006 in the S.C. Supreme Court. The state’s top court ruled that DDSN and the Babcock Center, a private, nonprofit service provider in Richland County, owed a duty of care to Bryant’s daughter, who Bryant alleged was raped by several men while in the care of Babcock during the 1990s.
Few Judges Sanctioned
In a letter this month to Bryant, Joseph Turner, assistant disciplinary counsel in the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) – an arm of the Supreme Court that investigates ethics complaints against judges and lawyers – acknowledged his office had received Bryant’s complaint against Miller, noting, “We will conduct an investigation into the matters you have reported.”
“Where misconduct is found, sanctions may be imposed ranging from a confidential letter of caution or admonition, public reprimand, or removal from office,” Turner said in the Dec. 10 letter. “If our investigation does not reveal evidence of judicial misconduct, your complaint will be dismissed.”
“It is often many months after receipt of a complaint before a final decision is made,” Turner added.
The ODC typically dismisses most complaints without an investigation, often ruling that the issues raised are appellate in nature as opposed to ethical violations. Of 317 pending and received complaints last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 193, or nearly 61 percent, were dismissed after initial review, according to a year-end report. In comparison, the office last fiscal year dismissed 27 complaints after an investigation, and another 54 complaints were dismissed by an investigative panel of the 26-member state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Only 19 complaints against judges last fiscal year resulted in any discipline, according to the report. Most of the sanctions were private letters of caution; just one public reprimand was issued. No judges were suspended or removed from office.
Legislatively Controlled Screening Panel
Turner’s letter was sent just over a month after a legislatively controlled screening panel, known as the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), qualified Miller for another six-year term on the bench, according to Bryant. Miller is running unopposed for his re-election to his seat.
Under state law, the House speaker appoints five members of the 10-member commission; the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, three members; and the Senate president pro tempore, two members. Only candidates nominated by the commission are eligible for election by the General Assembly.
The law requires that six of the 10 members of the JMSC be lawmakers, which two national legal organizations have said doesn’t meet their standards because the panel and selection of its members are dominated by legislators, as The Nerve previously has reported. The commission’s chairman this year was Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, who was appointed to the panel in 2008 by then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who resigned from office in October after pleading guilty to spending campaign funds on personal expenses.
Harrell’s plea and resignation stemmed from a 2013 public-corruption complaint filed by the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Because Bryant said she couldn’t return to South Carolina to testify at Miller’s screening hearing in November for fear of arrest on the outstanding bench warrant, she had her husband of 39 years, Rickey Bryant, testify on her behalf. She said she also provided the commission with court records on her case.
In an affidavit provided for the hearing, a copy of which Bryant provided to The Nerve, Bryant said Miller issued the bench warrant without having legal jurisdiction, noting, among other things, that she previously had filed a notice of appeal in her case with the state Court of Appeals.
The JMSC has not yet issued its official nomination report to the Legislature, though Bryant said the panel qualified Miller despite her husband’s testimony. The commission typically requalifies and renominates unopposed incumbent judges; efforts by The Nerve this week to reach commission staff were unsuccessful.
Besides Clemmons, the other lawmakers on the JMSC include Reps. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville and the House majority leader; and David Mack, D-Charleston; and Sens. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman; Chip Campsen, R-Charleston; and Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington. Clemmons, Bannister, Campsen and Malloy are attorneys.
Bryant told The Nerve she sent letters this week to House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York; as well as to Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who also is the Senate Finance Committee chairman, asking them to copy her letter and attachments to all lawmakers. In her letter, Bryant asks lawmakers to “please vote against Judge Edward Miller.”
“We need judicial reform in S.C.,” Bryant wrote, concluding, “I will not be home for Christmas this year but I pray to be home soon. God bless you and Merry Christmas.”
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Judicial Ethics Office Investigating Judge Who Issued Warrant for Mother of Adult Disabled Daughter