With All Due Respect
The hug-worthy way in which Rick Morgan serves the citizens of Columbia
Published in 2022 South Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine on April 22, 2022
Members of the Columbia City Council started asking Rick Morgan to apply to be a municipal judge in 2012. His response: “It’s certainly humbling to be requested, but I have a pretty active private practice.” Three years later, Morgan acquiesced.
“I said, ‘All right. But I want to make certain that part-time really means part-time,’” he recalls. So Morgan submitted an application for substitute judge, understanding that it generally meant three to five sessions per month, many of them weekend appointments. But when all the sitting judges submitted for another term, he figured that was the end of it.
Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, waiting at the vet with his dog, Morgan’s phone rings. “It’s someone at city hall, and she said, ‘Did you put in an application for substitute judge?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I did. But I understand that all of the sitting judges decided to re-up and that there were not going to be any new appointments.’ Then she says, ‘Hold on,’ and it seemed like a long time. She comes back and goes, ‘You’ve just been appointed, and you’ll have to do it in open session tonight.’ So I hang up and turn to my wife to say, ‘Dee, I think we need to go home and put on our Sunday best.’”
Morgan has been a municipal judge for the city of Columbia ever since, handling a diverse docket of non-jury bench trials.
“It was a challenging transition because my private practice has really been all on the civil side,” Morgan says. “So the challenge was having to dig into the code and the statutes and become familiar with the standards and the elements of the numerous kinds of charges that come before us—simple assault, domestic violence, petty larceny, trespass, public drinking.”
Another challenge was getting used to the idea of being on the other side—and even more, being the sole decision-maker in bench trials. He spent time observing several sitting judges to determine how they handled their courtrooms.
“Municipal court may be the only court that many citizens ever have a chance to be in, and that’s going to be their experience of how our judicial system works,” Morgan says. “So I ask myself this question, even today before I go up and sit: ‘How can I make this experience be one that they understand, feel treated with respect and dignity, feel fully heard, before having a decision issued?’ I felt that that was my role—no longer an advocate, but one of fidelity to the process. I try to do that with each and every person that comes before me.”
He’s reminded of one of his early days on the bench when an elderly woman appeared before him on a charge of speeding in a school zone. Right from the start, she told him she wanted to plead guilty.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, before I accept your guilty plea, I need to hear what the officer has to say and make sure that he or she meets all the elements necessary to prove their case.’ I listened, then went to her and made sure she understood all of her rights. She goes, ‘I still want to plead guilty.’ I said, ‘Well, ma’am, do you have anything to say?’ And she said, ‘Well, yeah, my granddaughter was late and I didn’t want her to be tardy for school. I’ve been on the road many times and I was just going too fast that day.’ I said, ‘OK, ma’am. With that, I’m going to have to find you guilty. And you were really going pretty fast, so this is a pretty stiff fine. Would you like a payment plan?’ She said, ‘No. I’m going to go ahead and pay it today.’ I said, ‘OK, well, you have a good day, ma’am.’
She steps away, and then steps back on up. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. Please do.’ She said, ‘I don’t know whether it’s proper or not, but can I come around and give you a hug? I certainly didn’t expect to be treated this nicely in court.’ I said, ‘Well, ma’am, I think it probably is a little bit inappropriate, but I really appreciate it. You have a nice day.’”
What Rick Morgan Learned From Being Judge Morgan
“It gives me a great sense of people. I think many of us forget that so many of our fellow citizens who end up in court are just regular people and that there’s a whole lot of folks out there who work paycheck to paycheck and do everything they can to try to support their families. I have a unique opportunity, in my view, to be able to sit and observe people and learn from that and take from that maybe a little humility. We see everyday people with everyday problems that sometimes we don’t always appreciate. Now I do.”