South Carolina Rep. Weston Newton was unanimously elected Wednesday to chair the House Judiciary Committee, a powerful role for the Beaufort Republican who will oversee a committee that vets a high number of bills each year.
Newton, 55, succeeds state Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, who was moved to the House Ways and Means Committee, another powerful committee that gets the first crack at writing the state budget every year.
“I appreciate the honor. It’s a role that I will not take lightly,” Newton told committee colleagues after his vote by acclamation Wednesday, Day 2 of the House’s organizational session. “This is an important committee. Awful lot of legislation that comes through here. And it is appropriate that those of us that are involved in the profession of law are accustomed to deliberative action, and this is an appropriate place for all of those ideas to be vetted and processed.”
State Reps. Jay Jordan, R-Florence, and John King, D-York, were named first vice chair and second vice chair, respectively.
In another move, Newton announced Wednesday the committee’s chief counsel Emma Dean is leaving for a job with the Bar Association.
An attorney, Newton was first elected to the House in 2012 after serving on Beaufort County Council. He has sat on the House Judiciary Committee since 2013. He previously chaired the House Legislative Oversight Committee, which on Wednesday named state Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Horry, its chairman.
The 25-member House Judiciary Committee, which vets a high number of bills of each year, has been ground zero for some of the lower chamber’s more controversial and high-profile legislation the past two years from guns, access to abortion, alcohol sales and redistricting.
“We’ll never escape the contentious issues, right? And many of those are ripe to be taken up by the subject matter committee, which is judiciary,” Newton told The State newspaper. “What I expect from all of my colleagues is proper decorum and mutual respect of each other. We’re not all going to agree on every issue, but we’re going to agree on one thing, that we’re going to be respectful of each other and the manner in which we do it.”
As chairman, Newton said he will not cut off debate and will not restrict discussion. He also said he’ll continue to livestream hearings, a practice brought back by his predecessor, Murphy.
Murphy only served one term, or two years, as chairman of the committee.
Throughout his term, the Republican legislator had been absent from the House, first due to COVID-19 and also because of lasting symptoms related to the disease. In February, while overseeing a hearing, Murphy abruptly left the meeting and was taken to the hospital.
But Murphy’s job as chairman was also marred by an awkward moment while chairing a hearing in August on abortion access, in which he cut short comments by colleague Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, whose emotional remarks went viral.
And it was bruised by his wife Maite Murphy’s decision to run for an upcoming open South Carolina Supreme Court seat. A current at-large state judge, Maite Murphy eventually withdrew her bid. In South Carolina, the Legislature, not voters, elect judges.
In September, Murphy then announced he was seeking treatment for alcohol abuse.
On Wednesday, Murphy told The State he had talked about leaving the House Judiciary Committee for a little more than three weeks, saying that staying on would have been detrimental to his health and his recovery from alcohol addiction. Murphy said he feels better after going through alcohol addiction treatment.
“It wasn’t conducive to my continued recovery and my health,” Murphy said. “Let’s be honest here, you’re the chairman of judiciary, you say ‘No’ a lot.”
In addition to Newton, Republican Rep. Bruce Bannister of Greenville was named chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Republican Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort County will chair the House Education and Public Works Committee.
Richland County Rep. Leon Howard, a Democrat who chaired the Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee — commonly known as “3M” and what was formerly the only committee in the House both chaired by a Democrat and made up of by a majority of Democrats — now sits on the Ways and Means Committee.
Howard was the only Black legislator who chaired a committee.
House Speaker Murrell Smith, a Sumter Republican who was reelected to the top post Tuesday, told the House Wednesday there was no mathematical equation to how he decided to divvy up committee assignments.
“In my opinion, there is no bad committee to serve on,” Smith said.
Reporter Joseph Bustos contributed to this report.