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August 04, 2023

Judges in Fox, Murdaugh cases look in the rearview mirror

One is a veteran judge in South Carolina, who in 23 years on the bench has presided over his share of murder trials. The other has sat on the state court bench in Delaware since 2010, which is noted as the bastion for U.S. legal business disputes.

While having different backgrounds, South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman and Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis share a common denominator: Both have been highly praised in legal circles for how they handled two of the most high-profile cases in 2023 — the murder trial of South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh and the defamation civil case involving Dominion Voting Systems and Fox News.

On Aug. 3, the two looked in the rearview mirror and shared their thoughts on managing the two very different cases in the opening day program of the 2023 American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Denver. Their panel, “The Art of Handling Key Complexities in High Profile Cases,” was organized by the National Conference of State Trial Judges of the ABA Judicial Division.

In March, a South Carolina jury found the 54-year-old Murdaugh, a disbarred attorney, guilty in the deaths of his wife and son. Newman sentenced him to two life sentences without the possibility of parole.

In April, on the beginning of the trial phase of the defamation suit, Davis announced that the two sides had agreed to a settlement, with Fox paying Dominion $787.5 million — nearly half of the $1.6 billion Dominion sought. At issue were false claims that Fox aired about Dominion related to former President Donald Trump’s false accusations about the 2020 election being stolen.

You have to have confidence that you can meet the moment,” Newman said of his approach to the Murdaugh trial. “Whatever the challenge is, you are prepared to deal with it. … Your years of preparation and the confidence you have knowing that you can do the job is the most important (thing).”

Davis echoed a similar message in his preparation and advice to law clerks and staff. “It is an adventure, don’t think of it as a task. If we think of it as a task, we are not going to make it. It will be too overwhelming.”

The 90-minute discussion touched upon many aspects of a legal case, from jury selection to security procedures to managing media. The dialogue spotlighted similarities and differences in their approach to the high-profile cases and their aftermaths.

Newman was asked to preside over the Murdaugh case by the South Carolina Supreme Court chief justice. Davis learned of his assignment in an elevator with a fellow judge, and he then confirmed he was randomly chosen from among 15 state judges in his Superior Court.

Both point to their deliberate and seasoned approaches as preparing themselves to handle the complex legal challenge, which included cameras in the courtrooms and international media attention. But in Davis’ situation, he admits he initially underestimated the road ahead.

“I didn’t understand the gravity of the case when I first got it. … I wasn’t really focused on the size of it,” he said.

Newman, meanwhile, knew the legal legacy of the Murdaugh family in South Carolina and was experienced in high-profile cases. He received a similar appointment by the state Supreme Court to preside over the 2015 trial of Michael Slager, the former police officer charged with murdering Walter Scott in North Charleston. Newman declared a mistrial in that case after a hung jury although Slager later pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge and is serving 20 years in jail.

After the cases, both judges received praise for their managing of the courtroom by lawyers and pundits. One noted that Newman’s handling of the Murdaugh set the “gold standard” for a trial judge. In April, prior to the settlement announcement, The New York Times reported that legal analysts gave Davis high marks for being evenhanded and reasonable in his discovery and other rulings.

However, since the end of both cases, the judges have adopted different approaches to what Davis called his “15 minutes” of fame. Newman’s wife, Patricia, said “everyone knows him” and Newman is quick to take pictures with strangers and enjoys the spotlight. “It has been fun, but it also has been taxing,” she said.

Davis relishes his return to anonymity, as he told fellow trial judges that the ABA discussion was the first event that he has agreed to do. “I was very happy doing my job and doing the cases,” he said, “and I am very happy to move on.”