ON STANDARDS OF JUDICIAL CONDUCT
OPINION NO. 9 - 2012
RE: Propriety of a full-time master-in-equity to accept, with the permission of the county administrator, appointments as special referee for a county that has no master-in-equity.
A full-time master-in-equity has requested an opinion as to the propriety of serving, with the consent of the master’s county administrator, as a special referee in a county that does not have a master. The master would be appointed by order of the circuit court or clerk of court pursuant to Rule 53(b), SCRCP and be personally compensated pursuant to Rule 53(d), SCRCP.
A full time master-in-equity, with the consent of the county administrator, may accept appointments as special referee.
In Opinion No. 19-2000, this Committee addressed an inquiry as to the propriety of a master- in-equity practicing law and/or accepting appointments as a special referee. That opinion stated that the South Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits a judge from practicing law and concluded full-time officers of the unified judicial system, including magistrates and masters-in-equity, could not practice of law or accept appointments as special referee. That opinion contained no other details or discussion.
The inquiring master notes that in the present inquiry, the county administrator has approved the master’s occasional service as a special referee for a county that has no master-in-equity. Rule 53, SCRCP defines both master and special referee. While a master is defined “the master-in-equity for the county[,]” a special referee is defined as “a member of the South Carolina Bar to whom a matter has been referred under S.C. Code Ann. § 14-11-60. Section 14-11-60 states:
In case of a vacancy in the office of master-in-equity or in case of the disqualification or disability of the master-in-equity from interest or any other reason for which cause can be shown the presiding circuit court judge, upon agreement of the parties, may appoint a special referee in any case who as to the case has all the powers of a master-in-equity. The special referee must be compensated by the parties involved in the action.
As that section clearly states, a special referee “has all the powers of a master-in-equity.” It is the opinion of this Committee that service as a special referee when appointed by the presiding circuit court judge is more akin to the master’s judicial duties than the practice of law. Thus, a full-time master may (with the consent of the county in which the master serves) accept appointments of a presiding circuit judge to serve as a special referee in a county that has no master-in-equity.
May 29, 2012