Governor Mark Sanford has correctly pointed out the weakness of the current state of the office of Governor of South Carolina. Though modern era governors such as Strom Thurmond, Ernest Hollings and Carroll Campbell used the force of their political personalities to be effective leaders, the fact remains that South Carolina’s Governor is among the weakest in the nation. Sanford has emphasized eliminating elected executive offices. However, that move, even if it came to fruition, does little to give the Governor real power. Real power for an executive in government comes from the ability to pardon and to appoint judges.
The constitution of 1896 that Sanford criticizes actually gave the Governor power over pardons and parole. However, the term of Governor Coleman Blease from 1911-1915 changed that. Blease all but abused his pardon powers, sparking the legislature to take such powers away from a Governor and place them with the Pardons and Parole Board. Now, all a Governor can do himself is to commute a sentence. Restoring a Governor’s right to issue absolute pardons would add real power to the office.
However, the truest source of power for the national executive and for a good many state executives is the power to nominate judges. President Obama reminded of all us this past week. As it stands, the South Carolina General Assembly appoints a board to review judicial candidates, selects three, and then votes on who should fill the position. The General Assembly has complete control over the Judicial Department of South Carolina in that it controls who the candidates for judicial positions are and decides who to elect from among them.
Judges, from Family Court to the Supreme Court, affect South Carolina lives each and every day. There is no greater influence an executive could have than to nominate someone to the courts and have that nominee serve well past the executive’s term of office.
In that, the federal system is actually pretty good. The President, the executive, nominates a judge, and then the legislative branch, through Senate confirmation, gets a chance to weigh in on the decision. Both branches have their say over the third branch.
Such is not the case in South Carolina. The appointments to the various levels of the Judicial Department are controlled by the Legislative Department. The Governor or the Executive Department has little if any say.
With Presidential aspirations on the line, it is baffling that Governor Sanford worries more about his successors being able to appoint the Commissioner of Agriculture than judges. If the Governor of South Carolina had the power to appoint judges, with the advice and consent of the South Carolina State Senate, the power of the office would increase dramatically. Such would put a check on the Legislative Department and make the Judicial Department accountable to both the Executive and Legislative Departments, which is the spirit of the “republican” form of government created by the founding fathers with “checks and balances.”