Judged by Democratic senators and a former governor over his lack of experience to head a state agency earlier this year, Mike Pitts can now simply call himself a judge.
The remarkable post-General Assembly career of the Laurens Republican took yet another unpredictable turn on Tuesday, when the firebrand 68-year-old was slotted into a magistrate’s position during a daylong special session.
“I told Jeff Duncan that I guess I was honorable again,” Pitts quipped to the Index-Journal Tuesday night. “I have applied for jobs in several different locations in private industry and other places. I’m not ready to retire and I’m either too old, too experienced or too hot a potato.”
Appointed by state Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, Pitts was among more than two dozen nominees confirmed to magistrate courts with no debate during lawmakers’ return to Columbia — time spent mostly addressing vetoes by Gov. Henry McMaster.
In March, Pitts withdrew his name from consideration to lead the state’s Conservation Bank after a bruising confirmation hearing in which his qualifications for the $115,000-a-year job were scrutinized.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, was among Pitts’ most vocal opponents, and even former Gov. Nikki Haley weighed in on Twitter saying somebody else should run the bank.
On Tuesday, Harpootlian decried Pitts’ judgeship.
“I think the political cronyism that would take someone who was not found fit for one state job and give them a magistrate judge as a consolation prize is wrong, and the people of Laurens County should not be happy about it,” he said. “Apparently, the political establishment is hell bent on giving Mike Pitts a government job.”
Magistrate judges have jurisdiction over criminal cases where penalties are 30 days or less in jail or a fine of not more than $500. They also set bail, sign search warrants and conduct preliminary hearings. In civil cases, magistrates can preside where the amount in question does not exceed $7,500.
They’re paid between $50,000 and $100,000 annually based on a county’s population and the judge’s experience.
“I remember the days when Republicans didn’t think they should use state money to reward their political friends,” Harpootlian said. “It’s just amazing to me. Those are our tax dollars being given to a guy who used to be a state legislator.”
Pitts represented House District 14 from 2002 through January, when he retired three months after a heart attack. Laurens Republican Stewart Jones won his seat this summer through a special election.
Laurens County, which has five magistrate slots, was short staffed through retirements and a recent death: On May 31, Chief Magistrate Judge Leesa Inabinet died after having a medical episode while driving.
Pitts said his former House mate, Republican Mark Willis of Fountain Inn, approached him about filling one of the vacancies. Pitts said he told Verdin he’d be willing to serve.
“Greenville has was having to send judges down here, and it left our delegation on this side in a pretty tight spot,” Pitts said. “Laurens was in a very difficult situation.”
The State newspaper reported Tuesday that Verdin nominated Pitts on June 7 and McMaster confirmed the appointment 10 days later.
Just a month after pulling out of the Conservation Bank job, McMaster recognized Pitts with an Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor.
A former Greenville police officer, Pitts said his background both in enforcing laws and creating them made him an appropriate choice for the bench.
He also refuted Harpootlian’s position that he was handed a golden parachute after the Conservation Bank defeat.
“The bottom line is, this is a job I’m well qualified for and if Harpootlian wants to say it’s a consolation prize, that’s his view. Mine is that it’s an ability to serve the people of Laurens County,” he said. “You don’t have to be an attorney (to be a magistrate judge), just like you don’t have to have common sense to be in the Senate.”