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Ignoring the Law: A South Carolina Tradition?

South Carolina lawmakers have an interesting way of dealing with laws they don’t feel like following. They ignore them.

Late last month,The Nerve revealed that the two of Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointments to the State Ethics Commission had not been confirmed by the South Carolina House as required by state law – although at the time of the story both were listed on the commission’s website as current members and both had participated in meetings. To his credit, Rep. Kenny Bingham, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, took action to ensure that the law is followed. It’s unlikely that the governor’s nominees would have been rejected by the House, but the fact that the “oversight” could happen at all is a tiny indication of just how little state lawmakers care about the law.

This story followed from an earlier piece on how Gov. Haley had simply neglected to appoint several replacements to the commission, as required by the law. Clearly, indifference to the law isn’t confined to the legislative branch.

It’s certainly given fuller expression in there, however.

Every year, to take another example, the Legislature utterly ignores a law requiring House and Senate appropriations committees to meet in joint open sessions to consider the governor’s executive budget. The law is clear, specifying the date on which these hearings must begin. It’s also manifestly in the public’s interest: If it were followed, the public would have some practical way to know what’s actually in the budget lawmakers spend the year debating. Rather than taking the time to get rid of a law they find inconvenient or undesirable, however, they just ignore it. The sessions never happen.

Sometimes, when an instance of disregarding state law is pointed out and the risks continuing to ignore it are too high, lawmakers give in and follow it – for that year, anyway. Back in June, when the Senate was concluding its debate on the state budget, senators voted on the whole bill without taking roll call votes on second reading, as the law requires. They just didn’t feel like it, evidently. When the issue was brought to their notice, the leadership backtracked and took roll call votes on third reading – a nonsensical thing to do, since any section receiving a “no” vote would have meant 100 percent loss of funding for the relevant agency.

More flagrant is the routine violation of a state law forbidding nepotistic appointments. The law states that “no public official, public member, or public employee may cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer, or advancement of a family member to a state or local office or position in which the public official, public member, or public employee supervises or manages.”

Of course, the Legislature appoints immediate family members of lawmakers to powerful and prestigious state boards all the time. University boards are a favorite. And there are obviously nepotistic appointments like that of Kaye Hearn, a state Supreme Court Justice and wife of former Rep. George Hearn; or Cal Land, a board member at the state-owned utility Santee Cooper and the son of (recently retired) longtime state senator John Land. These violate the spirit of the law, although lawmakers could conceivably contend that since they have no direct supervisory role over these entities, the appointments are valid. (A doubtful argument, but an argument all the same.)

Some appointments violate the letter and spirit. John Harrell, for example, who sits on the Judicial Merit Selection Commission – a body that screens judicial nominees before legislative appointments – is the brother of House Speaker Bobby Harrell. Clearly, since the speaker is among those who have direct oversight over the commission, the appointment is illegal.

There are sins of omission, too. It’s now reasonably well known that South Carolina is the only state in the nation that doesn’t require its elected officials to disclose any sources of private income. Instead, officials are required only to fill out a "statement of economic interests," or SEI, a statement declaring only broad areas in which the official may have an ongoing financial interest. The SEI is intended to alert the public to conflicts of interest involving public-sector income (government contracts, government salaries, etc.). Characteristically, though, lawmakers frequently ignore their SEIs. Many disclose nothing, implicitly claiming that there are no areas in which they may have conflicting interests – an incredible claim for the vast majority of part-time legislators who run businesses and law firms as their principal sources of income. Other lawmakers begin completing their SEIs only when questions are asked.

The general rule: when the law is inconvenient, ignore it. It has become fashionable in Washington, D.C. to claim that we are a nation “ruled by laws, not men.” It’s never been a fashionable claim to make in South Carolina – maybe because, in Columbia anyway, it isn’t true. 

Viewpoints

Rep. Kenny Bingham John Land John Harrell House Speaker Bobby Harrell S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission S.C. Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn