Category Archives: Rule of Law

Time for change: Scoppe column on judicial vote-trading

Did you see the exclusive story in The State the other day to this effect:

State and federal law enforcement officials are questioning S.C. legislators about potential illegal vote swapping in February’s race that re-elected the state’s Supreme Court chief justice, multiple sources have told The State….

Did you find yourself confused in reading it? Did you think to yourself, Don’t lawmakers trade votes all the time, on all sorts of issues? Since when is that illegal?

Well, Cindi Scoppe helps walk you through all that in her column today. She explains that yes, lawmakers routinely swap votes on issues — the General Assembly would get even less done if they did not.

But she also explains how a series of horrific events in 1995 that caused lawmakers to elect less-qualified jurists to the bench led to reform, and the practice was banned — with regard to judicial selection. (And ironically, the reform was passed by a vote-swapping deal between House and Senate conferees.)

Here’s her recap of what happened back then to lead to the reform:

it starts on a sunny spring day in 1995, when the Legislature elected E.C. Burnett to the Supreme Court and Kay Hearn to the Court of Appeals and re-elected Danny Martin to the Circuit Court. Mr. Burnett and Ms. Hearn were qualified for the positions, but analyses by the S.C. Bar and the Legislature’s judicial screening committee showed that they were the least qualified candidates in their hotly contested races. The committee found Mr. Martin didn’t understand the law at all, and the Bar had declared him unfit for the bench.

As senators filed out of the House chamber after the election, then-Sen. Robert Ford bragged about how it all happened: The Legislative Black Caucus pledged 20 votes for Hearn in exchange for Horry County votes for Martin and 18 votes for Burnett in return for four Spartanburg County votes for Martin; another five Spartanburg County legislators agreed not to vote in the Martin race.

“All kind of deals was made,” Sen. Ford told reporters. “I had to sell my soul to 10 devils.”

No one denied the deals, because vote trading always had been a part of judicial elections — whether the votes involved other judicial races or legislation. And why not? Trading votes is a natural part of the legislative process….

As so often during his lamentable lawmaking career, there was the brazen Robert Ford, standing as the poster child of bad government. But of course, he was just the most visible manifestation of something much more widespread. Perhaps we even owe him a debt of gratitude for making the unsavory situation so much more obvious.

That’s all history, but the thing that deserves even more attention is this conclusion:

I supported the current system for a long time, because it was such a huge improvement over what came before. But it never was a good system, because it encourages the sort of logrolling that is alleged to have occurred in the chief justice race, and because it allows one branch of government to control the judiciary.

And if one person rules the House with an iron hand — one person who is not the governor, who is not elected by all the voters of this state, and who is not accountable to the public for his power — it allows that one person to control the judiciary. As felt so disturbingly to be the case as we watched Mr. Harrell’s treatment in our courts in the weeks and months leading up to his indictment this summer on public corruption charges.

That’s sort of new, and sort of not.

I have long held the position that we should switch to a different method of choosing judges, preferably one like the federal system — the governor nominates, and the Senate confirms. That spreads out the power across the other two branches of government, and makes sure that the one individual having extensive say in the matter is one elected by all of the people, not just one House district.

But since the reforms of the 1990s, which did much to inject merit into the current system of election by the General Assembly, I (and the editorial board) acknowledged that the system was much better than it had been, and so we let judicial selection slide to a back burner. We still advocated for change when the subject came up, but we didn’t drive it the way we did so many other issues.

The events of the past year or two — with Bobby Harrell trying to bat the judiciary around like cat with a chew toy, so soon after a dramatic example of his power in choosing justices — mean it’s time to move real, substantive reform to the front rank of priorities.

It’s high time to stop letting the Legislature choose judges, all by its lonesome.

Cindi Scoppe’s litany of the trouble Bobby Harrell is in

After crushing Bobby Harrell’s explanation that he just wrote down some wrong dates on his spending disclosures, Cindi Scoppe, in her column today, went into this litany of trouble the ex-speaker is in, even if you do swallow his “wrong date” defense:

If in fact he “did travel in his private airplane on a personal trip, transporting himself, family and friends to Florida for a high school baseball tournament” and then paid himself nearly $3,900 from his campaign account, as the indictment alleges, that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “used his campaign account to pay credit card debt and to pay for goods and services for his home, family and friends,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … changing and altering the entries in his pilot log book,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … creating schedules of flights in order to justify payments from his campaign account, when in fact some of the listed flights did not occur or were personal and not related to any official or campaign purpose,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … misinforming law enforcement officers about the purposes and circumstances surrounding expenditures,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … misinforming the House Ethics Committee about the reason he reimbursed his campaign account,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he did all that, I’m not sure why there weren’t more chareges. Much of that sounds a lot to me like obstruction of justice. Sort of like that ominous reference to his paying himself nearly $300,000 “in untaxed income” sounds a lot to me like state and federal income tax evasion…

SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell indicted

When state Attorney General Alan Wilson handed off his investigation of Speaker Bobby Harrell to First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, Harrell went around doing victory laps, as though it meant he was in the clear.

This afternoon, Pascoe announced that a Richland County grand jury had indicted the speaker. Pascoe’s statement:

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe announces that the Richland County Grand Jury indicted Robert W. Harrell, Jr., Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, today on nine charges. The nine indictments are for two counts of Misconduct in Office (statutory and common law), six counts of Using Campaign Funds for Personal Use, and one count of False Reporting Candidate Campaign Disclosures.

A bond hearing date has not been set. Mr. Harrell has been provided copies of his indictments but he will be allowed to formally accept service of the true billed indictments and attend his bond hearing on the same date.

Once the date for service of the indictments and the bond hearing is set, the First Circuit Solicitor’s Office will provide ample notice to the media of the date and time. Solicitor Pascoe stated, “At this point in the process, the indictments are mere accusations. Mr. Harrell is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Solicitor Pascoe will have no further comment regarding this matter and respectfully requests that the media not contact his office regarding the case against Mr. Harrell. Any requests for indictments or future filings in this case should be directed to the Richland County Clerk of Court.

If you want to read the indictment itself, here it is.

Well, Mr. Pascoe certainly wasted no time on that. He’s either a really fast worker, or Mr. Wilson had already built him a pretty good case, it seems to me…

Would SOMEBODY please tell us what’s going on with Harrell?

The Bobby Harrell investigation — or whatever it is, or was — continues to be as weird as ever.

Over the weekend, the speaker triumphantly announced that the grand jury investigation of him is over, and his nemesis, Attorney General Alan Wilson, is off the case.

Then, John Monk (who, as you’ll recall, first reported that Harrell was trying secretly to get Wilson kicked off the case) got “sources familiar with the matter” to confirm that the investigation is continuing, now being overseen by 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe rather than Wilson.

Pascoe isn’t commenting. Neither is Wilson.

So. We don’t really know what is going on. But I agree with the conclusion of an editorial in The State today that said at some point, somebody needs to tell us, the people, what’s going on:

But here’s what we do know: Now that the Grand Jury no longer is empaneled, it cannot be argued that there is a legal prohibition on releasing the SLED report. And if Mr. Harrell’s victory dance has any basis — if in fact whatever remains of the criminal investigation is merely pro forma — then there is no reason that Mr. Wilson or Mr. Pascoe or whoever has possession of the report should not release it. Immediately.

For that matter, we don’t understand what legal basis there could be for Mr. Wilson refusing to comment on the status of the case. But then, there has been a lot about this case whose legal basis we have not understood.

It’s understandable that Mr. Wilson wouldn’t want to speak in detail and that the report would remain hidden from the public if the criminal investigation is indeed continuing. But even that must end at some point.

Whenever it ends, and however it ends, the attorney general must give an accounting for the way he has handled the case, and the SLED report must be released to the public. Not just because the subject of the probe has been so adamant in demanding its release, but because the voters need to know who has been doing his job and who has been abusing his office: our attorney general, or the speaker of the House.

Is there a war on transparency in South Carolina?

There was an unmistakable theme running through different items in The State this morning — a tale of government transparency on retreat.

South Carolina has never been on what you’d call the cutting edge of openness in government. After having worked for years under Tennessee’s wide-open Sunshine Law, I was deeply shocked when I got here and learned how easily public bodies could meet behind closed doors.

Based on three items in the paper today, the cause of transparency seems to be retreating on multiple fronts:

  • Ethics chief limits who can talk to media – Under some circumstances, I can have some sympathy for public officials trying to make sure a spokesman actually speaks for the institution, rather than confusing the public. But it’s particularly disturbing to see that it’s Nikki Haley’s appointee as chairman who’s trying to narrow and control the information pipeline — given our governor’s own history on the ethics front.
  • SC high court: Autopsy reports not public records — Says press mouthpiece Jay Bender: “With this decision, I fear that the only version of events that will reach the public will be the one that exonerates government personnel from any claims of misconduct.” I also like what an editor at the Sumter paper said in response to the courts concern that releasing an autopsy could reveal sensitive health information: “There has never been an autopsy that has ever been performed that improved someone’s health.”
  • Cindi Scoppe’s column on “Sealed records, closed doors” — Cindi writes about a series of weird instances of judges in the Lowcountry not only sealing documents that should be public, but closing the courtrooms’ doors. This is based on a report from Fitz McAden, executive editor of The Beaufort Gazette and Hilton Head’s Island Packet, so maybe it’s limited to courts in that part of the state. But Cindi worries that it isn’t.

And as Cindi notes in that column, we have yet to see what mischief may be caused by the Supreme Court’s footnote about certain aspects bearing on the Bobby Harrell ethics case also being heard in camera. Cindi promises, with a warning tone, to keep an eye on that:

If the high court indeed was sending a signal to close the courtroom, that would constitute a dramatic departure from its longstanding policy, and if that turns out to be the case, we will have ample opportunity to discuss that. At length.

The trendline at the moment doesn’t look good…

The court’s unanimous ruling in the Harrell/Wilson matter

Dave Crockett points out that we haven’t discussed the SC Supreme Court’s unanimous smackdown of Judge Manning’s bizarre ruling in the matter of Bobby Harrell, and Alan Wilson’s power to investigate him.

Maybe I’ve just been avoiding it, subconsciously, out of petulance over being scooped by that upstart Bryan Caskey:

Bryan didn’t just scoop ME. I happened to read that Tweet while attending the awards ceremony at The State Wednesday afternoon. I followed his link, and passed my phone first to Cindi Scoppe, then to John Monk — two people who have done more than anyone to keep us informed on this case — to give them the heads-up. (To John’s credit, he had told me before we sat down that the ruling was sort of expected, “Even as we stand here.” Fortunately, another reporter from the paper was covering that base while he was occupied.)

What to make of the ruling?

Well, to start with, it affirms what remaining faith we have in the rule of law. The justices unanimously rejected the absurd argument that the trial judge had constructed of whole cloth.

On the other hand, Manning could still rule unfavorably on Wilson’s ability to continue to handle the investigation, as the judge was instructed by the court to consider Harrell’s original motion seeking to remove the attorney general from the case.

So justice is still not out of the woods.

And I’m still a bit worried by that footnote to the ruling: “Due to the secrecy afforded state grand jury proceedings, future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter, should be held in camera.” I’m not sure what that means, in terms of what will be cloaked in secrecy and what will not. You’ll recall that our awareness of this power struggle began with John’s story about how the attempt by Harrell to have the court consider whether to toss Wilson off the case secretly.

On that point, I await further elucidation.

There seems little doubt, though, that the justices have been distressed from the start by the splash this case has made on the front pages.

But how could it be otherwise — a struggle between the highest levels of two branches of our government, with the third branch caught uncomfortably between?

France isn’t anti-Muslim, just anti-religion. Feel better?

Oh, I miss my Economist subscription, which the newspaper used to pay for.

But fortunately, the magazine did allow me today to read the piece promoted by this Tweet:


And here, basically, is the answer to the question:

France adheres to a strict form of secularism, known as laïcité, which is designed to keep religion out of public life. This principle was entrenched by law in 1905, after fierce anti-clerical struggles with the Roman Catholic church. Today, the lines are in some ways blurred. The French maintain, for instance, certain Catholic public holidays, such as Ascension. But secular rules on the whole prevail. It would be unthinkable in France, for example, to hold a nativity play in a state primary school, or for a president to be sworn in on a Bible.

Over the past 30 years, in response to a growing assertiveness among the country’s 5m-6m Muslims, the focus of this effort to balance religious and secular needs has shifted to Islam. After a decade of legal uncertainty over the wearing of the headscarf in state schools, the French government in 2004 banned all “conspicuous” religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, from public institutions such as state schools or town halls. This was followed in 2010 by what the French call the “burqa ban”, outlawing the full face covering in public. Critics accuse France of illiberalism, of curbing freedom of religious expression, and of imposing a Western interpretation of female oppression. Amnesty International, for example, called the recent European court ruling “a profound retreat for the right to freedom of expression and religion”. For the French, however, it is part of an unapologetic effort to keep religious expression private, and to uphold the country’s republican secular identity. Interestingly, many moderate Muslim leaders also back the ban as a bulwark against hard-line Islam….

So now you see. The French aren’t anti-Muslim. Just anti-religion. Sorta.

That will make some of you feel better, and some worse…

Good news you may have missed: SCOTUS decisions mostly unanimous this term

We fixate on the titanic ideological battles that yield painful 5-4 decisions, but there is strong evidence that with this Supreme Court, the law is usually not a matter of debate. I had missed this story in the NYT the other day:

WASHINGTON — FOR years, particularly after the 2000 election, talk about the Supreme Court has centered on its bitter 5-to-4 divisions. Yet it is worth reflecting on a remarkable achievement: The court has agreed unanimously in more than 66 percent of its cases this term (and that figure holds even if Monday’s remaining two cases, on the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage and on public-sector unions, are not unanimous). The last year this happened was 1940.

The justices’ ability to cross partisan divides and find common ground in their bottom-line judgment in roughly two-thirds of their cases — including the two decisions handed down Thursday, restricting the president’s ability to issuerecess appointments during brief breaks in the Senate’s work, and striking down a Massachusetts ban on protests near abortion clinics — should remind us that even in this hyperpartisan age, there is a difference between law and politics….

Sixty-six percent. That’s a figure that should be reassuring to those of us who believe in the importance of the rule of law.

Toal was wrong about Wilson and the press release

Cindi Scoppe had another strong column today relating to the Harrell-Wilson case. Basically, it was about how creepily accurate the rumor mill has been about how judges would rule on the case thus far, starting with predictions that Casey Manning would come up with the bizarre notion that the attorney general lacked the authority to prosecute the speaker.

It ends with the current rumor, which is that the court will overturn Judge Manning’s ruling, but “direct the judge to decide whether Mr. Wilson should be replaced with another prosecutor and strongly suggest that he should be.”

Let’s hope the rumor mill is wrong on this one, because it would be bad for South Carolina to have the attorney general undermined in his effort to treat the speaker like any other citizen. It would mean victory for the speaker, whose goal all along has been to kick Wilson off the case.

Some of the speculation may arise from Chief Justice Jean Toal’s concern about the “unprecedented” press release that Wilson put out announcing that he was asking a grand jury to consider the Harrell case.

The thing is, the chief justice is wrong about the release being unprecedented, or even unusual:

We have heard for weeks that the chief justice was fixated on the news release that Mr. Wilson sent out in January announcing that he was referring the case to the Grand Jury. And on Tuesday Ms. Toal brought that up and returned to it multiple times, going so far as to call it “unprecedented” and say she had “never heard of having a news release to announce you’re going to submit something to the Grand Jury, ever.” So that rumor appears to have been correct as well.

That point merits a little more explanation, particularly because it plays into the final piece of speculation, which has not yet played out. Justice Toal might never have noticed such a thing, but it is by no means unprecedented. I still have the news release Mr. Wilson sent out in 2011 announcing he was asking the Grand Jury to investigate then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. When I asked the attorney general’s office on Wednesday about similar news releases, I was provided with three others, involving S.C. State University and two high-profile securities fraud investigations. I also was sent six news articles in which the attorney general’s office confirmed that other high-profile cases had been referred to the Grand Jury.

I’m told from previous administrations that the main goal of these news releases is to get reporters to stop hounding the office for information, by making it clear that no more comment can be made….

If any of the momentum toward removing Wilson arises from concern over the press release, I hope the justices will read, and consider, that section of Cindi’s column before ruling.

Divided Supremes rule for Hobby Lobby

This is this morning’s big news:

The Supreme Court struck a key part of President Obama’s health-care law Monday, ruling that some companies may refuse to offer insurance coverage of specific birth control methods if they conflict with the owner’s religious beliefs.

In a 5 to 4 ruling that pitted religious freedom against equal benefits for female workers, the court’s conservatives decided that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) gave employers the right to withhold certain birth control methods from insurance coverage.

The contraceptive mandate “clearly imposes a substantial burden” on the owner’s beliefs, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.

It was the first time that the court had decided that the federal law covers corporations, not just the “persons” referred to in its text….

Since Pew says I’m in the “Faith and Family Left,” I suppose this is a win for my “side.” So, yay us.

OK, that sounded facetious — but only because I find the notion of “sides” that always agree amongst themselves absurd. On the substance, I suppose I’m with the majority of the court. If I hadn’t been already, then one of the sillier Tweets I saw objecting to the decision would have pushed me in that direction:


Well, then, if that’s the case, then you don’t want your employer providing you with birth control. Since, you know, it’s not any of his or her business. (I probably should have just said “his” there, instead of “his or her,” since the sort of person who would post something like that Tweet probably pictures a male as the big, bad boss.) There are some self-described feminists who get into such a rhetorical rut (in this case, the “keep your laws off my body” rut) that they fail to recognize instances when their habitual rhetoric fails to serve their cause. In this case, the ACA mandates that employers take a paternalistic (sticking with the “employer as male” stereotype) interest in one’s “reproductive choices.”

If you’d like to read the whole decision by the court, here it is.

Rebekah Brooks: How could anyone with hair like that be guilty?

OK, so maybe someone with hair like that could be guilty. But the jury said she’s not, and it’s sort of good to know that that mane will continue to wave wild and free, whatever its owner did:

David Cameron’s former communications chief Andy Coulson is facing jail after being found guilty of conspiring to hack phones while he was editor of the News of the World.

Rebekah Brooks, his predecessor in the job, walked free from the Old Bailey after she was cleared of all four of the charges she faced in the eight-month trial….

I imagine Boadicea, the Celtic queen who led an uprising against Roman occupation, having hair like that. I don’t know why; maybe because of pictures such as this one

Corey Hutchins’ 4,500-word primer on Harrell saga

As we look forward to the state Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in the clash over Attorney General Alan Wilson’s power to investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell, you may want to review how we got here.

If you have the time, you might peruse Corey Hutchin’s 4,500-word explainer for The Center for Public Integrity, headlined “An ethical mess in South Carolina.”

Corey sets the scene thusly:

On a recent Thursday, a light rain was washing against the office window of South Carolina’s first-term attorney general, Alan Wilson. On the floor near his desk, about a dozen thick black binders spilled out of the bottom shelf of a bookcase and onto the carpet. Inside each of them: supporting documentation from a 10-month state police investigation into the sitting House speaker, Bobby Harrell, a fellow Republican and arguably the state’s most powerful politician.

“And that’s just a preliminary investigation,” said Wilson, gesturing to the pile.

The attorney general will not say what’s inside the binders, and no one outside a handful of lawyers, prosecutors, law enforcement agents and grand jurors who are sworn to secrecy have seen what’s in the report. The speaker of the House himself hasn’t seen what’s in it either, although he’s called for Wilson to release the voluminous file to the public, maintaining he’s done nothing wrong and decrying the grand jury probe as political in nature.

But the question of what’s in those binders is but one of many queries that have riveted the Palmetto State as it struggles to cope with a scandal unprecedented even by the standards of this often ethically challenged state. Whether Wilson, the state’s top prosecutor, will be able to continue an investigation he turned over to a state grand jury in January has itself now come into question. A state court judge who was elected by the legislators — South Carolina is one of just two states that allow that — issued a stunning ruling last month that said the AG lacks jurisdiction over the powerful speaker. The judge ordered Wilson to shut down his probe. Wilson has appealed to the state Supreme Court, calling the judge’s order “unprecedented in American law and unsupported by any known legal authority,” and has vowed to press on. The state’s highest court has set a June 24 date to hear oral arguments….

You will already know a lot of what he has to say after that, but you may learn some things, too. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing myself, although I intend to…

The Harrell investigation continues

Yesterday, the state Supreme Court gave Attorney General Alan Wilson the official OK to keep doing what he’s doing:

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, SLED and the State Grand Jury can continue investigating alleged ethics and other possible criminal violations against S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell while Wilson’s appeal of a lower court order is pending, the Supreme Court said in an order issued Thursday.

In his May 12 ruling on the matter, Circuit Judge Casey Manning ordered Wilson and SLED to stop investigating Harrell and turn the matter over to the House Ethics Committee for its consideration.

Manning also ordered Wilson to disband the State Grand Jury that is investigating Harrell. But Wilson had continued to investigate even after Manning’s ruling, saying the ruling infringed on his role as the state’s top prosecutor.

The Supreme Court’s order Thursday keeps the grand jury intact and allows it to keep investigating Harrell pending a June 24 hearing on whether Wilson’s entire investigation should be turned over to the House Ethics Committee….

While not definitively affirming the rule of law (that will only happen when Manning’s ruling is overturned), this restores some semblance of good sense and order to the situation.

I found it ironic that Harrell put out a statement saying in part, “The attorney general’s conduct has made it clear that political motivations are driving his actions.” In a backhanded way, Bobby Harrell is doing all he can to get Alan Wilson re-elected, by acting so outrageously (the attempt to have the AG taken off the case secretly really takes the cake) and offering him these golden opportunities to look good.

That said, Mr. Wilson deserves full credit for rising to the occasion, doing the right thing at each step along the way.

On a related matter — what do y’all think about the question John Monk raised this morning, whether Jean Toal and Costa Pleicones should recuse themselves in the matter of Harrell, since the speaker backed the former for re-election, and opposed the latter?

I’m inclined to say no — that argument could conceivably be taken to the conclusion that no state judge should ever decide a matter regarding a legislator, since they elect the judges — but I’m open to a good argument…

Does it matter that Harrell’s PAC contributed to ethics panel members? Uh, yeah, I think so…

While I believe Kenny Bingham is saying what he truly believes when he says he would not be swayed by past contributions from a PAC associated with Speaker Bobby Harrell, I’m gonna have to come down on the side of those who would say that this means the House Ethics Committee should in no way be passing judgment on their boss:

The five Republican members of the 10-member House Ethics Committee — which House Speaker Bobby Harrell wants to decide allegations against him — have received some $13,000 in campaign contributions from a political action committee associated with the Charleston Republican.

Those committee members, who have received contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC, include Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. In 2008, 2010 and 2012, Bingham received $1,000 contributions each election cycle from the Palmetto Leadership Council….

Actually… I would question the impartiality of the panel even if no one on it had received a dime from the PAC. But the money raises sufficient additional questions that the House ethics cops should leap to recuse themselves and let other competent authorities deal with this matter. Such as, you know, the attorney general

Oh, and on a related matter…

It looks like whoever did the coding on John Monk’s story had a bit of a Freudian slip. The story appears on the website under “Crime” instead of under “SC Politics.” Very interesting…

crime

Lawmakers, listen up! Here’s how you can fix ethics mess

You knew Cindi would have a good column reacting to the ruling by Judge Manning that she had foreshadowed with dread, and today she did. Read it here.

It’s all good, but on the chance that some of our lawmakers are reading today, I want to call attention to the part in which she explained what they could do to fix the situation. Noting that there’s no guarantee that the Supreme Court will reverse the circuit judge, she urged lawmakers to act today:

The best chance this year for making that fix could come Wednesday. That’s when the House could make final changes to an anemic ethics-reform bill, before it goes to a House-Senate conference committee. This stage is crucial, because it’s the last time legislators can insert new language into the bill by a simple majority; after this, any new language will require two-thirds approval in the House and the Senate.

So, what we need is for someone to propose an amendment to make it clear that ethics violations are crimes and that the attorney general is free to prosecute them. It needs to be a clean amendment — one that doesn’t also grant other forms of immunity, or raise the standard for prosecution, or make any other nefarious changes that reduce the chance that legislators who violate the law will be punished.

There are lots of other shortcomings of that bill, but frankly, no loophole in our ethics law even approaches the significance of the one that Judge Manning just discovered. If the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn his order or the Legislature doesn’t pass the fix, then I’m not sure anything else in the ethics law will really matter very much.

The only people who would vote against such an amendment are those who believe that legislators should remain above the law. No, not even that: It would be those legislators who are so arrogant in their power that they are willing to admit that they believe they are above the law.

Here’s hoping her words have a positive effect.

Undeterred, AG Wilson will continue Harrell probe

Good for Alan Wilson! He’s not going to let the judge’s ruling shut down his investigation:

 — The investigation into S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell will continue despite a circuit judge’s order that an ongoing SLED and State Grand Jury probe be shut down immediately, state Attorney General Alan Wilson says.

Continued work is allowed during an appeal of a judge’s order, Wilson said. As expected, he said he is appealing Circuit Judge Casey Manning’s order immediately to the state Supreme Court.

“The law allows us to do that,” Wilson told a State reporter in an interview. “The grand jury can continue to do its work unless the S.C. Supreme Court orders it to cease and desist.”…

This is encouraging. I was afraid the whole investigation was dead in the water, pending an appellate ruling.

Judge Manning’s ruling yesterday increases the urgency to get to the bottom of these allegations against the speaker, and it’s a good thing for South Carolina that Wilson is carrying on.

Judge Manning’s outrageous ruling protecting Harrell

Well, it happened. After having reached for an absurd justification that even the speaker’s own attorneys hadn’t dared to propose, Circuit Judge Casey Manning ordered Attorney General Alan Wilson and SLED to stop investigating Bobby Harrell, and declared any action taken by the grand jury in the case “null and void.”

To remind you, here is what former attorneys general Travis Medlock, Charlie Condon and Henry McMaster had to say about the notion underlying the judge’s ruling:

“Over the past thirty years, not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official. Such a restriction would undercut the core Constitutional authority of the Attorney General. And even more importantly, it would violate the fundamental basis of our system of government that all people should be treated equally under the law.”

I wrote previously that the three ex-AGs standing next to Wilson to defend the rule of law made me proud to be from South Carolina. Judge Manning’s ruling makes me want to hang my head.

Wilson was undaunted, fortunately:

We believe today’s order of Judge Manning is without any foundation or support in the law. This office will vigorously pursue all appellate remedies and will seek to continue this investigation.

Judge Manning himself indicated that he expected the matter to be decided by a higher court. Of course, that’s no excuse for an irresponsible ruling.

Until a higher court acts, this investigation is in limbo. And that’s outrageous.

Cindi Scoppe’s latest dead-on column about Harrell case

You may recall that Cindi Scoppe worried earlier that maybe Judge Manning himself came up with the outrageous idea that maybe there was some doubt about whether the attorney general had the authority to investigate crimes allegedly committed by legislators, without special permission.

She writes today that her fears were realized:

I respect the idea enunciated Friday by Circuit Judge Casey Manning that, before this case proceeds any further, he wants a thorough examination of subject-matter jurisdiction. That is, he wants to make sure that the State Grand Jury and Attorney General Alan Wilson actually have jurisdiction to investigate this case without the House Ethics Committee asking them to.

But honestly, the idea that they don’t … . Well, it remains too bizarre to even comprehend….

You want to know how out-there an idea it is that the state constitution prohibits the attorney general from investigating legislators without other legislators’ blessing? It’s so out there that even Mr. Harrell’s attorneys didn’t think of raising it.

That’s right. Mr. Harrell has some awfully audacious attorneys… But even they didn’t dream up this crazy theory. They quickly embraced it, of course; they’d be crazy not to. But the idea was not, as so many people had assumed, the brainchild of Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe.

It was, as Judge Manning acknowledged in court on Friday, Judge Manning’s idea.

How preposterous is the idea? Listen to former Attorneys General Henry McMaster, Charlie Condon and Travis Medlock, who served as South Carolina’s chief prosecutors for the past 30 years, showed up in the courtroom to make a point and issued this statement:

“Over the past thirty years, not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official. Such a restriction would undercut the core Constitutional authority of the Attorney General. And even more importantly, it would violate the fundamental basis of our system of government that all people should be treated equally under the law.”

Not one of us ever imagined such a thing.

This is not a close call….

So we all wait with bated breath, while the judge considers something that, given the law, should be beyond consideration. Or at least, it appears so to this layman.

Here’s hoping he reaches that same conclusion.

No decision in Harrell/Wilson case

QOfGr.AuSt.74

Three things to note from hearing this morning in Speaker Bobby Harrell’s effort to keep Attorney General Alan Wilson from prosecuting him:

  1. John Monk is making good use of Twitter today in covering this. For a blow-by-blow account, check his feed — including photos.
  2. As pictured above, the state’s last three AGs are standing behind Wilson in defense of his obvious constitutional authority in this matter. I hope The State doesn’t mind my showing this to you, seeing as how I’m urging you to go read their coverage and all. (And if they do, I’ll take it down immediately.)
  3. The judge put off a decision for a week. What Judge Manning is finding so tough about this bewilders me. Harrell hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Cindi Scoppe’s rather devastating column this morning on Bobby Harrell and the SC House

A few days ago, Kirkman Finlay, who is facing re-election to his House seat, started following me on Twitter.Finlay egg

I immediately saw that he could probably use some help with social media. His avatar is still, as Valentine Michael Smith would say, only an egg.

He could probably also use some help explaining to voters his bill, H.4453, which seems designed to help out Speaker Bobby Harrell by making the illegal things he’s been suspected of doing legal.

That bill suddenly started getting acted upon in the House as it became apparent that Harrell’s attempt to secretly toss Attorney General Alan Wilson off his case was doomed to fail.

But that’s just the beginning. You really need to read Cindi Scoppe’s remarkable column today, which tied together a web of House initiatives that seem reminiscent of the way Silvio Berlusconi’s legislative allies kept legislating him out of trouble, by making the illegal legal.

As I said, H.4453 is only the beginning:

Then, in the most audacious move to date, 85 House members last week filed H.5072, which would empower the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct State Grand Jury investigations into the attorney general and other “constitutional officers.” One of the initial sponsors — Wilson campaign attorney and Democratic Rep. James Smith — said that term also covers legislators, which means it would allow the speaker and president pro tempore to stop any attorney general investigations of legislators.

Of course the bill wouldn’t actually accomplish that because our state constitution names the attorney general as “the chief prosecuting officer of the State with authority to supervise the prosecution of all criminal cases in courts of record.” So the sponsors — led by Kris Crawford, against whom Mr. Wilson’s predecessor, Henry McMaster, brought tax-evasion charges in 2010 — also filed H.5073 to remove that language from the constitution.

If that passed, not only would the speaker and president pro tempore be able to stop any attorney general investigations, or initiate investigations into the attorney general, but the Legislature would be free to strip attorneys general of all power. The House unanimously agreed to bypass the committee process for both measures and place them on the calendar for immediate debate, an extraordinary thing to do for anything other than congratulatory resolutions and local legislation.

Let’s recap: I count five attempts in a year by Mr. Harrell’s friends to intimidate the attorney general or else quash first a SLED investigation and now a Grand Jury investigation. Which seems like a lot for someone who insists he hasn’t committed any crimes — or even violated any non-criminal provisions of the ethics law….

Wow, huh? (The boldface emphasis is mine.)

John Monk did good work recently revealing the move to get Wilson secretly tossed off the case. But this masterful column paints a picture of a pattern far more sweeping, and more disturbing, than that. It’s the kind of thing that reminds us why we have a First Amendment.

Good job, Cindi.