State Supreme Court Chief Justice Toal to face rare opponent

Jean Toal Will Face Associate Justice Costa Pleicones

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Much to the surprise of many, the leader of the state's Supreme Court, Jean Toal, will face a challenge by one of her associate justices, a rare occurrence. In the election, set for Jan. 29, Toal will face Justice Costa Pleicones who currently sits with her on the five-member court. That news became official today. Lawmakers will decide the outcome. 

The Palmetto State is the only one in the nation other than Virginia where legislators elect state-level judges, including those on the state's High Court. In other states, justices are chosen by popular election or are appointed by the governor. In South Carolina, state-level judges must first go through a screening process by a panel of legislators called the Joint Merit Selection Commission.

That panel will begin a series of public hearings on Nov. 5 to determine the eligibility of Toal and Pleicones, according to a news release. Hence, this news of the official nature of the two-person race. Since one is the sitting chief and the other is already on the High Court bench, they're both likely to breeze through. No one else can enter the race, said a spokesperson for the JMSC.

Right now neither candidate can lobby lawmakers for votes, and they won't be able to for 48 hours after they are deemed eligible. After the waiting period they can ask for votes personally up until the election.

Toal, a 69-year-old former lawmaker, is the first female chief justice in South Carolina. Pleicones, six months younger than Toal, was a legendary public defender.

For legal observers it's created kind of a bizarre situation.

“Usually, elections are settled by quiet agreements between justices on succession, as well as lobbying behind the scenes to get enough votes from lawmakers so there doesn’t have to be an election,” wrote John Monk of the The State newspaper back in June.

It was around then that Pleicones had begun sending letters to lawmakers announcing his intention to try and unseat Toal. Some were caught off guard by it.

What issues are likely to arise in the race remain to be seen. But in the wake of the federal Citizens United ruing in 2010 that relaxed rules on third-party spending to influence elections – and South Carolina's incredibly unregulated nature in that area – the potential for special interest influence is ripe. 

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