Judicial merit selection commission public hearings on judicial qualifications


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SEN. RITCHIE: Good morning, everyone. I think we have nearly everyone here. I understand Representative Smith is going to join us shortly.
I would like to welcome everybody this morning. It's an honor to serve as your chairman this round. It's been a pleasure to be with you for the last five years, and I look forward to working with you as chairman for the next few days and then to turn it over to the vice chairman for 2006 in the house rotation. I'm confident it's going to be a good next few years.
There are some new members of the commission that I want to introduce to everyone this morning. To my left is Senator Cleary, senator from Georgetown who has just joined us. Glad to have him with us. And on my right is senator from Charleston, Senator Ford.

This commission has enjoyed an enormous impact on the quality and the strength of the judiciary since its inception. And in addition to lots of folks working over the past couple of years on it, Senators Moore and Chairman McConnell, I think we owe them a great deal of gratitude for their leadership and their constancy in making sure this functions well. But there's another person I would like to recognize who has been instrumental in the success of this commission and that's Gayle Addy. Gayle is over here to our left. And this is her last round as the commission chairwoman, head staffer. And, Gayle, I can't thank you enough for all your help, your tutelage, your quiet, steady hand and the grace in which you have handled all the candidates and all of us over the last few years. You will be greatly missed.

We also have a few new staff folks with us this year. I want to introduce them. I think many of you know Jane Shuler to my left. Jane has been with the judiciary committee or three years -- four years. And between chasing her son and now getting her degree, graduating MBA?
MS. SHULER: Master's in counseling, marriage and family.
SEN. RITCHIE: This is a good place for you to do that. But Jane will be heading up all the staff going forward. And we also want to introduce some more folks to us and they are to my left behind me. Tracey Green who is chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. Mikell Harper who is counsel to the speaker. Glad to have him. Bradley, thank you very much for all your work. I know you've had some serious family tragedy over the last couple of weeks. And Jane has told me you've just been remarkable. We thank you very much and our sympathies go with you and your family. And Tricia Miller. Tricia is the new administrative assistant. Tricia is going to be with us. So we have a fairly new team working this year and it's going to be great. You all know J.J. and you know Phil who has been with us for a couple of years on this.
I would like to at this point before we go into further discussions of the work, let's go into executive session if we could. I will entertain a motion to go into executive session.
REP. DOUG SMITH: So moved.
SEN. RITCHIE: Second moved?
SEN. RITCHIE: So all in favor say aye. Any opposed?
SEN. RITCHIE: Great. We're now in executive session. Ronnie, if you will clear the room, please.

(The Members went into Executive Session.)

REP. DOUG SMITH: And I move that, Senator, that we can at least assist those that have absolutely no negative references at all in hopefully being able to get some bench time or chamber time tomorrow instead of having to be here, that we move -- that we waive the public hearing for those. Those that have any negative references that we at least give them an opportunity to

be here for any discussions that we might have on that and allow them to reschedule tomorrow so that they can be here and hopefully in a timely way and we can be out of here.

SEN. RITCHIE: Does everyone understand the motion that anyone who has no adverse comments be waived tomorrow?
SEN. RITCHIE: All in favor say aye. Any opposed?

Let the record reflect it's a unanimous decision. And the staff will notify the judges appropriately and put the schedules together to meet that. If you will just let us know at the end of the day what the new schedule will be.

MS. SHULER: I will.
SEN. RITCHIE: Thank you. Good morning.
MR. COTHRAN: Good morning.
SEN. RITCHIE: The Judicial Merit Selection Commission is called pursuant to Chapter 19 of Title 2 of the South Carolina Code of Laws requiring the review of candidates for judicial office. The function of the commission is not to choose between candidates, but rather to declare whether or not the candidates who offer for portions to the bench are in our judgment qualified to fill the positions. The inquiry we undertake is a thorough one. It is centered around the commission's nine evaluative criteria. It involves a complete personal and professional background check on every candidate. These public hearings are convened for the purpose of screening candidates for the following positions: A vacancy on the Supreme Court, a vacancy on the Court of Appeals, 13 vacancies on the Circuit Court, a vacancy on the Family Court, a vacancy on the Equity Court, a vacancy on the Administrative Law Court, and two retired circuit judges.
Before us this morning, first, is Ralph Ferrell Cothran, Jr. He is a Circuit Court candidate for the Third Judicial Circuit, seat one. Welcome.
MR. COTHRAN: Thank you.
SEN. RITCHIE: If you would, raise your right hand so you can be sworn in this morning.

Q. Have you had the opportunity to review the personal data questionnaire, Mr. Cothran?

A. Yes.

Q. Is it correct and do you need any changes?
A. It's correct.
Q. Do you object to our making that document a part of the record of your sworn testimony?
A. No.
Q. It will be done at this point in the transcript.


Court, Position, and Seat # for which you are applying:

Circuit Court, Third Judicial Circuit, Seat 1

NAME: Mr. Ralph Ferrell Cothran, Jr.

BUSINESS ADDRESS: Post Office Drawer 700,Manning, S.C. 29102

E-MAIL ADDRESS: clarendonattorney@sc.rr.com

TELEPHONE NUMBER: (office): (803) 435-0135

2. Date of Birth: 1952

Place of Birth: Clarendon County

3. Are you a citizen of South Carolina? Yes.

Have you been a resident of this state for at least the immediate past five years? Yes.

AMENDED 5. Family Status: Married on April 12, 1985 to Deborah Jean Brakefield Cothran.

Divorced on October 30, 1983; R. Ferrell Cothran, Jr., Family Court of the Third Judicial Circuit; 1 year separation. AMENDED: Three children.

Have you served in the military? No.

7. List each college and law school you attended, including the dates of your attendance, the degrees you received, and if you left an institution without receiving a degree, the reason for your departure.

University of South Carolina 1970 – 1974, Bachelor of Arts Degree;

University of South Carolina School of Law 1974 – 1977, Juris Doctor Degree.

8. List the states in which you have been admitted to practice law and the year of each admission. Also list any states in which you took the bar exam, but were never admitted to the practice of law. If you took the bar exam more than once in any of the states listed, please indicate the number of times you took the exam in each state.

South Carolina, 1977

9. List the significant activities in which you took part during your attendance at college, graduate, and law school. Give the dates you were involved in these activities and list any leadership positions you held.

Page in the State House 1970-1977

10. Describe your continuing legal or judicial education during the past five years. Include only the title and date of any continuing legal or judicial education course completed.

(a) Planning and Zoning, August 23, 2005

(b) Association of Counties, July 2005

(c) S.C. Solicitors Conference, Sept. – Oct. 2004/2005

11. Have you taught law-related courses or lectured at bar association conferences, educational institutions, or continuing legal or judicial education programs? If so, briefly describe each course or lecture.

Since I prosecuted the first Auto Theft and Chop Shop in South Carolina, I conducted a course (over a 5 year period) at the Criminal Justice Academy in regards to Auto Theft and Chop Shop Law.

12. List all published books and articles you have written and give citations and the dates of publication for each. N/A

13. List all courts in which you have been admitted to practice and list the dates of your admission. Give the same information for administrative bodies that require a special admission to practice.

South Carolina 1977

Federal 1995

14. Describe chronologically your legal experience since graduation from law school and include a list of all law firms with which you have been associated. Describe the general character of your practice and divide it into periods with dates if its character has changed over the years.

After my completion of the Bar examination in 1977, I began working with my father in his practice of law Cothran, Chandler & Cothran. In the early 80’s, it became the firm of Cothran & Cothran with Ray E. Chandler, Jr. leaving the firm. Scott Robinson joined the firm after my father was elected Probate Judge for Clarendon County and it became the firm Cothran & Robinson. My practice consisted of Real Estate, Family, Civil and Criminal matters.

I became the County attorney in 1979 and I have served as County attorney since that time.

In 1983, I was appointed by Wade S. Kolb, Jr., Solicitor of the Third Circuit as the Assistant Solicitor for Clarendon County and have been a prosecuting attorney since that appointment.

Being an Assistant Solicitor, I have had experience in the courtroom for the past 23 years and have covered cases ranging from DUI –2nd offenses to Death Penalty cases. Being County attorney, I have also had experience in civil actions, most of which has been settled prior to trial.

Richard Coker vs. Sullivan Auto & Fugua Industries, Inc., Case No.: 88-CP-14-111.

I was associate counsel with the firm of Nelson Mullins to defend Snapper in an action brought where a 13 year old had his foot cut off. The case last two weeks and I took part in the closing arguments and the jury came back with an “0” verdict.

Roy Walker vs. J. Reid Boylston, III, Don M. Houck & Lawyers Title Insurance Company, Case No.: 01-CP-38-75.

This case involved a Title Insurance Company. My client purchased several tracts of land and found out afterwards that one of the tracts of land did not exist. I brought an action against the Title Insurance Company and the sellers. We had a number of hearings and depositions before the case was finally settled.

15. What is your rating in Martindale-Hubbell? BV

16. What was the frequency of your court appearances during the last five years?

(a) federal: none

(b) state: 11 weeks per year

17. What percentage of your practice involved civil, criminal, and domestic matters during the last five years?

(a) civil: 5%

(b) criminal: 85%

(c) domestic: 10% prior to becoming full time county attorney

18. What percentage of your practice in trial court during the last five years involved matters that went to a jury?

(a) jury: 95%

(b) non-jury: 5%

Did you most often serve as sole counsel, chief counsel, or associate counsel in these matters? Yes.

19. List five of the most significant litigated matters that you have personally handled in either trial or appellate court or before a state or federal agency. Give citations if the cases were reported and describe why these matters were significant.

(a) State v. Anthony Woods, Case No. 04-GS-14-35

Anthony Woods was charged with Burglary 1st Degree, Criminal Sexual Conduct 1st Degree, Assault and Battery w/ Intent to Kill in which he broke in on a woman who was 80 years old and raped and beat her. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. We are now in the process of seeking the Death Penalty on other charges.

(b) State v. Benjamin and Betty Mims, Case No.96-GS-14-115

This case involved a husband and wife who was charged with Lynching in the 2nd Degree and Assault and Battery of a High and Aggravated Nature. They were white and accused of lynching a young black male. This case created huge racial tension and international coverage. They were convicted of Assault and Battery of a High and Aggravated Nature.

(c) State v. Robert Conyers, Case No. 93-GS-14-278.

Robert Conyers was a 16 year old serial killer who was charged with 2 counts of Murder, CSC, Burglary 1st and Assault and Battery with Intent to Kill. The State sought the Death Penalty. He pled guilty to the charges. The State tried the sentencing phase and he was sentenced before the Honorable Duane M. Shuler to the Death Penalty.

(d) State v. Bennie Charles Tanner, Case No. 87-GS-14-292.

This case was a Felony DUI with Reese Joye as opposing counsel that lasted two to three weeks. The Defendant was found guilty and this case was ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court.

  1. State v. Levan Witherspoon, Case No. 94-GS-14-72.

This case was a Death Penalty case where the Defendant along with two co-Defendants committed Armed Robbery at a local convenient store. The clerk was murdered in the process of the robbery. The jury process selection went for weeks and we could only seat 12 jurors. While asking the last question of the last witness, one of the jurors had a mental breakdown and a mistrial had to be declared because of the lack of jurors. The Defendant was tried the second time and was convicted of Armed Robbery.

20. List up to five civil appeals that you have personally handled. Give the case name, the court, the date of decision, and the citation if the case was reported.

(a) Ray Ward v. Clarendon County Planning Commission, Court of Common Pleas Case No. 2004-CP-14-179; 7/12/04.

(b) Elizabeth Beidler Carton Boardman Trust, an Illinois Trust and Black Oak Hunting Club v. Eddie O. Alsbrooks, Court of Common Pleas Case No. 97-CP-14-537; 2/17/1999.

21. List up to five criminal appeals that you have personally handled. Give the case name, the court, the date of decision and the citation if the case was reported. Please attach one copy of briefs filed by you in each matter.

Since I have been prosecuting cases for 23 years through the Solicitor’s office, I have not handled any appeals. The Attorney General’s office handles all appeals.

22. Have you ever held judicial office? If so, list the periods of your service, the courts involved, and whether you were elected or appointed. Describe the jurisdiction of each of the courts and note any limitations on the jurisdiction of each court. No.

23. If the answer to question 22 is yes, describe or attach five of your most significant orders or opinions and give the citations if they were reported. Also list citations to any appellate review of these orders or opinions. N/A.

24. Have you ever held public office other than judicial office? If so, list the periods of your service, the office or offices involved, and whether you were elected or appointed.

Yes. I was appointed as Chairman to the Election Commission in the late 1970’s early 1980’s. I was appointed as Assistant Solicitor in 1983 and have served in that capacity since that time.

25. List all employment you have had while serving as a judge (whether full-time or part-time, contractual or at will, consulting or otherwise) other than elected judicial office. N/A.

26. Have you ever been an unsuccessful candidate for elective, judicial, or other public office? No.

27. Have you ever been engaged in any occupation, business, or profession other than the practice of law, teaching of law, or holding judicial or other public office? No.

28. Are you now an officer or director or involved in the management of any business enterprise? No.

29. A complete, current financial net worth statement was provided to the Commission.

30. Describe any financial arrangements or business relationships that you have, or have had in the past, that could constitute or result in a possible conflict of interest in the position you seek. Explain how you would resolve any potential conflict of interest. None.

31. Have you ever been arrested, charged, or held by federal, state, or other law enforcement authorities for violation or for suspicion of violation of any federal law or regulation; state law or regulation; or county or municipal law, regulation, or ordinance? No.

32. Have you, to your knowledge, ever been under federal, state, or local investigation for possible violation of a criminal statute? No.

33. Has a tax lien or other collection procedure ever been instituted against you by federal, state, or local authorities? Have you ever defaulted on a student loan? Have you ever filed for bankruptcy? No.

34. Have you ever been sued, either personally or professionally? If so, give details. When I was a partner at Cothran & Cothran, I was sued by Ken Branch who claimed that I was not watching out for his interest while in fact I was representing the opposing party. This matter was dismissed prior to trial. As a Deputy Solicitor, by association, I have been sued by numerous Pro Se Litigants, all of which were subsequently dismissed.

36. Are you now or have you ever been employed as a “lobbyist,” as defined by S.C. Code § 2-17-10(13), or have you acted in the capacity of a “lobbyist’s principal,” as defined by S.C. Code § 2-17-10(14)? No.

37. Since filing with the Commission your letter of intent to run for judicial office, have you accepted lodging, transportation, entertainment, food, meals, beverages, money, or any other thing of value as defined by S.C. Code § 2-17-10(1) from a lobbyist or lobbyist’s principal? No.

38. S.C. Code § 8-13-700 provides, in part, that “[n]o public official, public member, or public employee may knowingly use his official office, membership, or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a member of his immediate family, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.” Please detail any knowledge you have of any formal charges or informal allegations against you or any other candidate for violations of these provisions. N/A

39. S.C. Code § 8-13-765 provides, in part, that “[n]o person may use government personnel, equipment, materials, or an office building in an election campaign.” Please detail any knowledge you have of any formal charges or informal allegations against you or any other candidate for violations of these provisions. N/A

40. Itemize (by amount, type, and date) all expenditures, other than those for travel and room and board, made by you, or on your behalf, in furtherance of your candidacy for the position you seek. None.

41. List the amount and recipient of all contributions made by you or on your behalf to members of the General Assembly since the announcement of your intent to seek election to a judgeship. None.

42. Have you directly or indirectly requested the pledge of any member of the General Assembly as to your election for the position for which you are being screened? Have you received the assurance of any public official or public employee that they will seek the pledge of any member of the General Assembly as to your election for the position for which you are being screened? No.

43. Have you requested a friend or colleague to contact members of the General Assembly on your behalf? If so, give details. Are you aware of any friends or colleagues contacting members of the General Assembly on your behalf? No.

44. Have you or has anyone acting on your behalf solicited or collected funds to aid in the promotion of your candidacy? No.

45. Have you or has anyone acting on your behalf contacted members of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission about your candidacy or intention to become a candidate? No.

46. List all bar associations and professional organizations of which you are a member and give the titles and dates of any offices you have held in such groups.

(a) South Carolina Bar;

(b) Clarendon County Bar Association.

47. List all civic, charitable, educational, social, and fraternal organizations of which you are or have been a member during the past five years and include any offices held in such a group, any professional honors, awards, or other forms of recognition received and not listed elsewhere.

(a) First Presbyterian Church at Manning - Clerk of the Session/ Chairman Board of Deacons;

(b) Rotary Club.

48. Provide any other information which may reflect positively or negatively on your candidacy, or which you believe should be disclosed in connection with consideration of you for nomination for the position you seek.

Being with the Solicitor’s Office for the last 23 years, I have either handled or been involved with every criminal proceeding in Clarendon County. I feel that my courtroom experience would serve me well in this capacity.

49. References:

(a) Dr. William J. Holmes, Presbyterian Church at Manning

P.O. Box 207, Manning, S.C. 29102

(803) 435-8157

(b) A.C. English, President, Bank of Clarendon

106 S. Brooks Street, Manning, S.C. 29102

(803) 433-4451

(c) Beulah Roberts, Clerk of Court, Clarendon County Courthouse

Manning, S.C. 29102

(803) 435-4443

(d) William F. Houser, Clarendon County Administrator

P.O. Box 486, Manning, S.C. 29102

(803) 435-9654

(e) I.S. Leevy Johnson, Esq.

P.O. Box 1431, Columbia, S.C. 29202

(803) 252-9700



S/ Ralph Ferrell Cothran, Jr. Date: October 4, 2005

SEN. RITCHIE: The Judicial Merit Selection Commission has thoroughly investigated your qualification for the bench. Our inquiry has focused on the nine evaluative criteria and has included a bench and bar survey, a thorough study of your application materials, verification of your compliance with state ethics laws, a search of newspaper articles in which your name appears, a study of previous screenings, and a check for economic conflicts of interest. We have received no affidavits filed in opposition to your election and no witnesses are present to testify. Do you have a brief opening statement that you would like to make at this time?

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