Chester County Magistrate Angel Catina Underwood admitted the allegations and accepted a six-month suspension, states a written order released Wednesday by the S.C. Supreme Court.
Underwood’s husband is former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood. The former sheriff was suspended from his job in 2019 and faces up to four years in federal prison after a jury convicted him of corruption charges in 2021.
Judge Underwood accepted the suspension, the court order states.
“Respondent (judge Underwood) admits misconduct and consents to the issuance of any sanction ... up to a six-month suspension,” the order states. “We accept the Agreement and suspend Respondent from office for six months.”
‘Blurred the boundaries’
The court order states Underwood accessed the Chester County Sheriff’s Office Facebook account for private tip information and handled sheriff’s office employee disciplinary actions and other actions while her husband was sheriff. Underwood also sent emails and correspondence on behalf of the sheriff’s office, according to the order.
Magistrate judges are impartial and not supposed to be affiliated with law enforcement, South Carolina law states.
Judge Angel Underwood’s actions were violations of the separation of the judicial branch from law enforcement, the order states.
“These actions blurred the boundaries between her role as an independent and impartial magistrate and someone acting on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department,” the order states. “Regardless of whether Respondent (Angel Underwood) intended her emails and actions to remain private, her conduct served to erode public confidence in the judiciary. Accordingly, we find Respondent’s pattern of conduct with the Sheriff’s Department is sufficient to create in reasonable minds a perception that her ability to carry out her judicial responsibilities impartially is impaired.”
The six-month suspension takes effect immediately, the order states. The suspension is Judge Underwood’s second since she has been a judge. She has been a magistrate for about a decade.
She was suspended in 2015 and issued a public reprimand by the S.C. Supreme Court after a conflict of interest in cases involving the sheriff’s office, documents show. The current suspension covers actions Judge Underwood undertook during 2017 and 2018 while her husband was sheriff.
Current Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey told The Herald he was aware of the court order suspending Judge Underwood and declined comment.
Magistrates are political appointments
Magistrate judges in South Carolina do not have to be lawyers. Judge Underwood is not a lawyer, her suspension document states.
Magistrates in South Carolina typically handle traffic cases, misdemeanor criminal cases, civil cases under $10,000, bond hearings, probable cause hearings, and other matters, South Carolina law states. Magistrates also issue arrest warrants and search warrants to law enforcement.
South Carolina magistrates are nominated by the S.C. State Senate and confirmed by the governor. Magistrates serve four-year terms.
Chester County has three other magistrate judges, according to the S.C. Summary Courts website.
Efforts to reach S.C. State Sen. Mike Fanning, a Democrat whose district encompasses all of Chester County and part of York County, were unsuccessful. Fanning nominated Underwood for reappointment in 2019 at a time when he didn’t nominate other incumbent Chester County magistrates for reappointment.
It remains unclear how the loss of a magistrate judge in Chester County will impact the handling of pending and future cases.
Efforts to reach Olivia Williford, Chester County chief magistrate, were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Husband, two top deputies convicted
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster suspended former Sheriff Alex Underwood in May 2019 after he was indicted. The former sheriff, who was first elected in 2012 and reelected in 2016, lost a reelection bid to current Chester Sheriff Max Dorsey in 2020.
Former sheriff Underwood’s sentencing is pending after a federal jury convicted him in April 2021 of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and federal program theft, unlawful arrest of a Chester County man in 2018 and wire fraud, records show. He faces 46 to 57 months in prison.
Two top deputies at the sheriff’s office also face years in prison after they also were convicted in the same federal trial.
Alex Underwood and the two former deputies face pending sentencing in front of U.S District Court Judge Michelle Childs.