A Lowcountry judge who has increasingly been denounced by members of the legal community and victim’s families for a series of questionable judgments will lose his job come next summer.
In a 5-5 vote, Circuit Court Judge Bentley Price of Charleston was found unqualified Monday by the state’s Judicial Merit Selection Commission, following mounting criticisms about his judicial temperament and leniency toward criminal defendants charged with violent crimes. The commission’s vote follows a report by his peers via the South Carolina Bar Association that also concluded Price was unqualified to serve based on reputation.
In his bid to retain his seat, Price was challenged by Charleston-area attorney Brent Halverson, who also was deemed unqualified by the JMSC. Accordingly, Price’s seat in the 9th Circuit, which consists of Charleston and Berkeley counties, will become vacant upon the expiration of his term on June 30, 2024.
Price’s ouster comes amid ongoing calls for a change in the way state judges are selected in South Carolina and also for greater checks and balances on lawyer-legislators serving on the JMSC, who some say, have improperly leveraged their positions to secure favorable rulings for their clients while advocating for or against judicial candidates with whom they may or may not like.
Lawyer-legislator helped Price get to the bench
For Price, who was first elected in 2019, former state representative and JMSC member Peter McCoy was instrumental in his ascension to the bench, according to 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe — one the major players now calling for a JMSC makeover.
In a hearing earlier this month before a special panel of lawmakers studying judicial reform, Pascoe suggested that McCoy had inappropriately used his position as a then-lawyer-legislator to replace Judge Kristi Harrington, who had ruled against him in a criminal case, with his close friend, Price.
“Mr. McCoy spoke at length, for anyone who was at Bentley Price’s investiture, about how he worked hard to get Bentley Price elected to the bench,” Pascoe said.
In 2017, Harrington, who had been on the bench for 10 years, denied a last-minute request by McCoy for a continuance in a murder trial. The case involved out-of-state witnesses and had been on the court’s docket for years, according to Pascoe. “She knows McCoy (is) upset,” Pascoe told lawmakers. “And not long after she hangs up the phone with Mr. McCoy, she immediately calls a another circuit court judge, a good friend of hers, and says, ‘I’m in trouble.’”
Ultimately, when it came time for Harrington to reappear before the JMSC to keep her job, she withdraw from the race after the commission berated, intimidated and threatened her, according to Pascoe. Price would soon take her place.
Criticism for his rulings
But since his time on the bench, Price became embattled over multiple rulings where violent offenders were shown leniency, especially when those defendants were represented by a lawyer-legislator.
For example, in 2021, Price presided over a bond hearing where the defendant, Dartez Ferguson Jr., was charged with murder. Despite Ferguson having pleaded guilty to a slew of other violent crimes, including assault and battery, strong-arm robbery, and firing a gun into a car, Price granted bail to Ferguson, who was represented by state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.
Following his bond release, Ferguson habitually violated house arrest and curfew restraints, prompting the solicitor’s office to file a motion revoking his bond, according to court records. Nevertheless, after a bond revocation hearing in August, Price sided with Stavrinakis and permitted Ferguson to remain on the streets.
“He has no business being a judge because he is unethical, he’s biased, and he doesn’t uphold the law,” said Andrea Manigault, the mother of the person Ferguson is alleged to have killed, in an interview with Live 5 WCSC last month. “God help us if he continues to rule.”
“This is far from Judge prices first act of preferential treatment of Rep. Stavrinakis, and I would invite all of you go to the 9th Circuit solicitor’s office website for the public to see what the bar, the bailiffs and everyone in the courtroom sees every day, which is the preferential treatment that (Price) gives to Rep. Stavrinakis,” said Pascoe.
Price did not respond to a request for comment.