Having lost a bitter battle to join the South Carolina Court of Appeals last year, Judge DeAndrea Benjamin has now been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Born DeAndrea Gist in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1972, Benjamin received a B.A. from Winthrop University in 1994 and a J.D. from the University of South Carolina Law School in 1997. After graduating, Benjamin clerked for Judge L. Casey Manning on the Fifth Judicial Circuit of South Carolina. She then spent two years at the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office and another two years at the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office before opening her own practice in 2001.
While practicing, Benjamin also worked part-time as a Columbia city judge and on the Juvenile Parole Board. In 2010, Benjamin narrowly lost an election in the South Carolina legislature to become a family court judge to Gwendolyn Young Smalls. See Small Bests Benjamin for Family Court Judge, S.C. Politics Today, Feb. 3, 2010. In 2011, Benjamin was appointed to be a Circuit Judge on the Fifth Judicial Circuit in a unanimous vote. See Wife of Columbia Mayor Elected Judge, A.P. State & Local Wire, Feb. 3, 2011.
Benjamin’s husband, Steve Benjamin is a prominent South Carolina Democrat who lost a race for Attorney General to (now Governor) Henry McMaster in 2002 and served as Mayor of Columbia from 2010 to 2022. In 2010, during the mayoral election, the Benjamins were criticized for listing two primary residences of their tax forms, which they explained was because they moved. See Tax Wars Dominate Capital City Mayoral Race, FITSNews For You, Apr. 17, 2010.
In 2013, Benjamin’s brother Donald Gist Jr. was tragically shot and killed in Charlotte, N.C. See SC Mayor’s Brother-in-Law Killed in Charlotte, A.P. Online, Dec. 7, 2013.
In 2021, Benjamin was up for a seat on the South Carolina Court of Appeals but lost after opposition from conservatives critical of her husband. See Judge and Columbia Mayor’s Wife Loses Partisan Judicial Race, A.P. State & Local, Feb. 3, 2021. The legislature selected Judge Jay Vinson instead.
History of the Seat
Benjamin has been nominated to replace U.S. Circuit Henry Floyd, who moved to senior status on December 31, 2021. Benjamin was recommended for the vacancy by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, who is close to the Biden Administration.
Benjamin has held a variety of positions throughout her legal career. She started her career at the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office, where she handled criminal prosecutions in Richland and Kershaw counties. Subsequently, at the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, she continued criminal prosecutions, including the sexual assault prosecution of York County Sheriff’s Deputy Tommy Benfield Sr. See Former Sheriff’s Deputy Indicted on Sex Charges, A.P. State & Local Wire, Sept. 23, 2000.
From 2001 to 2011, Benjamin worked as a solo practitioner in Columbia. Among the cases she handled during this time, Benjamin represented James McKinney, a teacher who sued an investigator with Richland County for arresting him on warrants not supported by probable cause. See McKinney v. Richland Cnty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 431 F.3d 415 (4th Cir. 2005). After Judge Margaret Seymour denied summary judgment for the defendants, the Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. See id. at 419.
Benjamin also handled a number of employment discrimination suits, including that of Ada Irene Dawson, an African-American FBI agent who sued for racial discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. See Dawson v. United States, 549 F. Supp. 2d 736 (D.S.C. 2008). Benjamin also represented Beverly Mahomes who sued the U.S. Postal Service for racial discrimination after her termination. See Mahomes v. Potter, 590 F. Supp. 2d 775 (D.S.C. 2008).
Benjamin has served as a South Carolina Circuit Court judge since her election in 2011. In this role, she serves as a trial judge handling both civil and criminal matters for the counties of Richland and Kershaw.
Among her criminal cases, Benjamin has shown a willingness to hand out harsh sentences. For example, she sentenced Brett Parker to two terms of life in prison after he was convicted of killing his wife and his business partner. See Judge Sentences Columbia Man to 2 Life Terms, A.P. State & Local Wire, May 29, 2013. She also sentenced Christopher Harmon to 20 years in prison for kidnapping and sexual assault. See North August Man Sentenced to 20 Years for 2017 Kidnapping, Sexual Assault Case, Aiken Standard, Dec. 19, 2019.
On the civil side, Benjamin dismissed a suit challenging South Carolina’s ban on online eye exams, finding the company had failed to plead an injury sufficient to give them standing to challenge the law. See Judge Dismisses Case Challenging Online Eye Exam Ban, Columbia Regional Business Report, Jan. 30, 2018. The South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the requirements for standing had been met. See Opternative, Inc. v. S.C. Bd. of Med. Examiners, 859 S.E.2d 263 (S.C. App. 2021).
Benjamin also sat by designation on the South Carolina Supreme Court. See, e.g., Burch v. Burch, 717 S.E.2d 757 (S.C. 2011).
During her time on the circuit court bench, some of Benjamin’s decisions were appealed to the South Carolina Court of Appeals and the South Carolina Supreme Court. The majority of these decisions were affirmed. See, e.g., State v. Brown, 740 S.E.2d 493 (S.C. 2013) (affirming jury instructions given in larceny conviction). Some of the decisions that were reversed are highlighted below:
Lee v. Univ. of S.C. (757 S.E.2d 394 (S.C. 2014)) – The plaintiff contracted with the University to give him an opportunity to purchase football and basketball tickets throughout his lifetime in consideration for taking out a life insurance policy with the University as a beneficiary. The University subsequently began imposing seat license fees on all purchases, which the plaintiff challenged as a breach of contract. Benjamin ruled that the plaintiff was not being denied his contractual right of purchase by imposing the licensing fees. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed 4-1, finding that the payment of the licensing fee constituted an additional condition the University attempted to impose on a contract that did not require it. Justice Costa Pleicones would have affirmed.
Sanders v. State (773 S.E.2d 580 (S.C. 2015)) – The Defendant in the case agreed to waive all collateral review of any conviction in exchange for the state agreeing not to seek the death penalty. When the Defendant subsequently attempted to collaterally challenge his conviction, Benjamin dismissed the challenge under the agreement. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, finding that Benjamin should have convened an evidentiary hearing to confirm if the Defendant’s attorney was constitutionally defective in advising him to consent to the agreement.
Lucero v. State (777 S.E.2d 409 (S.C. App. 2015)) – The Defendant challenged her conviction for drug trafficking collaterally after an immigration judge ordered her removed based on the conviction. Benjamin granted post-conviction relief based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, which found that defense counsel needed to advise non-citizens of immigration consequences from their pleas. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the Padilla decision could not be applied retroactively to the Defendant’s case.
State v. Stukes (787 S.E.2d 480 (S.C. 2016)) – The Defendant was convicted of rape after a trial in which the complainant claimed that she was assaulted while the Defendant argued that the intercourse was consensual. Benjamin advised the jury, consistent with the statute, that the complainant’s statement need not be corroborated to be believed. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed 3-2, finding that, while the instruction was an accurate statement of the law, it confused the jury in this instance and was impermissible. Justice Kittredge dissented, finding any error to be harmless.
State v. Herndon (845 S.E.2d 499 (S.C. 2020)) – The Defendant, after a conviction for voluntary manslaughter, challenged Benjamin’s refusal to give the jury a Logan charge, or an instruction advising them as to how they should consider circumstantial evidence, as opposed to direct evidence. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, finding that, as the state’s evidence was almost entirely circumstantial, the charge was required to be given.
Benjamin has had her share of judicial disappointment, including losing bids for the Family Court and the South Carolina Court of Appeals. While Benjamin may well draw opposition in her bid for the Fourth Circuit, her confirmation will largely be tied to what Sen. Lindsay Graham chooses to do. Graham, who has generally been one of the most friendly Republican senators to Biden nominees, could grease the path for his home-state nominee if he supports her. If Graham chooses to oppose Benjamin, however, it is unlikely that she would be confirmed.