COLUMBIA (AP) — Chief Justice Jean Toal was re-elected Wednesday to lead South Carolina’s Supreme Court — and the state’s $61 million court system — and her challenger vowed to seek the top spot again.
Meeting in a joint session, House and Senate members voted 95-74 to elect Toal over Associate Justice Costa Pleicones. After the balloting, both jurists pledged that the outcome would change nothing about how they interact inside or outside of the court.
Last year, Pleicones surprised the state’s legal community when he said he would challenge Toal in her pursuit of a new term. He and Toal have served side-by-side since 2000, when Toal became chief justice after 12 years on the court — and the first woman to lead the court. Pleicones, then a circuit court judge, was elected to serve out her unexpired term and has been re-elected in his own right since.
Toal, 70, will serve as chief for roughly the next two years until she reaches the mandatory judicial retirement age of 72. Pleicones’ current term expires in 2016, and he said Wednesday that he would run again when the chief position comes open.
South Carolina is one of two states where lawmakers elect judges to interpret laws passed by lawmakers. The Judicial Merit Selection Commission — a 10-member panel appointed by legislative leaders — vets the candidates’ qualifications for each seat and can nominate up to three candidates for each position.
Sitting judges typically sail through that process, as Toal and Pleicones both did last year. During a November hearing, Pleicones told the panel that he had both the experience and desire to step up to the court’s top position, stressing his willingness to follow the law even if it means he often dissents from the majority.
“I think that a fresh perspective is beneficial to any business … from time to time,” Pleicones told the panel. “I am prepared for this mission.”
During her time before the commission, Toal said she had “agonized” over the decision to seek another term as chief but said that she ultimately felt she needed more time to see through projects like the implementation of a court docket management system.
Both justices said after the vote Wednesday that the outcome would affect neither their personal or professional interactions. Before the legislative election, the five-member court heard arguments in three cases and expected to debate privately later Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re professional,” Pleicones said. “This changes really nothing in the professional relationship at all, nor in the personal relationship. … I’ve been sitting next to her in one capacity or another for the past 50 years.”
Toal echoed those statements a few moments later, during questioning by reporters outside the House chamber.
“We’ve handled it with a great deal of affection for each other,” Toal said. “Our friendship is deep, and it won’t change because of this.”