Political Tit-for-Tat Puts Crime Bill in Jeopardy

June 14, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA bill that would make it a crime for secondary school teachers and officials to have consensual sex with older students could die this week in the S.C. Legislature, a potential victim of an apparent political payback.

Not getting a bill passed this year would result in more students being victimized for at least another year, victims’ advocates say.

The bill (S. 107), sponsored by Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, passed the Senate last year but remained stuck in the House Judiciary Committee until May 20. That’s when an amendment quietly was added to his bill that would allow lawyer-legislators to run for the state Administrative Law Court after they were out of office for one year instead of the current four years.

The amendment was authored by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, and an attorney.  Stavrinakis is the main sponsor of a bill (H. 3874) that would accomplish the same thing, but his bill stalled in the Senate after passing the House last year.

The House passed Ryberg’s amended bill on a voice vote on May 27 and sent it back to the Senate, which on June 1 approved a motion by Ryberg to reinstate the bill without Stavrinakis’ amendment.  The House, however, didn’t care for that move, rejecting the returned bill by a 77-1 vote on June 3, the last day of the regular session.

The bill could still pass this year if a conference committee is appointed to try to work out the differences between the Senate and House versions. Lawmakers return Tuesday and are expected to wrap up any remaining work this legislative session – mainly considering conference committee reports and Gov. Mark Sanford’s vetoes– by the end of the day Thursday.

If no agreement is reached this week, the bill would have to be reintroduced when the Legislature starts a new session in January.

Longtime victims’ advocate Laura Hudson, executive director of the nonprofit South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council, told The Nerve last week that any senators appointed to the conference committee likely will refuse to pass the bill if it contains Stavrinakis’ amendment.

“It’s an egregious bobtailing violation,” Hudson said about the amendment. “That’s what the Senate is going to react to, not the merits of the bill.”

“Bobtailing” or “log rolling” has been the General Assembly’s longstanding practice of adding unrelated items – usually at the last minute – to a bill on a separate subject.  It’s typically done when the unrelated matter stalls as a stand-alone bill.

The S.C. Supreme Court has consistently in recent years ruled against the practice when particular bills have been challenged. The court last year issued its strongest message yet, ruling that it would strike down entire bills – not just the offending portions – if it determined that “bobtailing” occurred.

Hudson said Stavrinakis’ amendment has “nothing to do” with Ryberg’s bill, adding she believes the amendment was proposed to “give a leg up to these (legislator-) lawyers for a cushy job on the Administrative Law Court.”

Not so, says Stavrinakis.

“I have zero interest in becoming an Administrative Law Court judge,” Stavrinakis told The Nerve last week, adding he was not acting on behalf of any other lawyer-legislators.

Stavrinakis said he proposed his bill only because he is trying to “correct an inequity in the law,” explaining that under current law, retired lawyer-legislators can run for family court, circuit court, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court seats after being out of office for one year, compared to the four-year wait for Administrative Law Court seats.

But his motive behind his amendment to Ryberg’s bill was an entirely different matter:  He contends that Ryberg and several other senators effectively killed his bill by placing their names on it to contest it, which prevents debate on the Senate floor. Debate can continue if the senators remove  their names, or if the chamber by a two-thirds vote moves the bill onto its “special order,” or priority, calendar.

“We get frustrated in the House that the Senate has their rules to allow one or two senators to block bills,” Stavrinakis said. “This is bigger than one bill.”

So, he continued, “Our only recourse to try to get (House) bills passed (in the Senate) is to add something to the (Senate) bills of the people that it means something to.”

Translation:  You mess with my bill, I mess with yours.

Asked if his amendment were an example of “bobtailing” that the Supreme Court would strike down, Stavrinakis replied, “The Senate has selective memory when it comes to bobtailing. … Their rules make it easy to attach things to bills.”

Contacted last week, Ryberg told The Nerve:  “If (Stavrinakis) is satisfied with killing (my) bill, which I think is a tragic mistake, then they need to insist on their version. But it’s unfortunate he would go that far to kill the bill.”

“If he is trying to get me, he really needs to think through it,” Ryberg continued. “It’s going to impact victims.”
Ryberg said Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, likely will “make it clear” to the Senate appointees on the conference committee that the “portion that the House put in that we stripped out is a non-starter.  … It is bobtailing.”

Conference committees are made up of three members from each chamber.  If the committee reaches an agreement, that version must be accepted by both chambers and approved by the governor to become law.

Hudson said Ryberg’s bill is needed because parents statewide are “outraged that somebody can’t be charged with sexually battering their sons or daughters if they are 16, 17, or 18, and they’re still a student.”

Under the bill, any administrator, teacher, substitute teacher, teacher’s assistant, student teacher, law enforcement officer, school bus driver, guidance counselor or coach affiliated with a public or private junior high school or high school would be banned from engaging in consensual sex with students 16 years and older.  Current law makes it crime for adults to have sex with children under 16.

The penalties under Ryberg’s bill would be as follows:

  • Up to five years in prison if the student were 16 or 17;
  • Up to five years in prison if the student were 18 years or older and the offender had “direct supervisory authority” over the student;
  • 30 days in jail and a maximum $500 fine if the student were 18 years or older and the offender did not have “direct supervisory authority” over the student.

The bill would have a “minimal” impact on the state’s general fund expenditures, according to a fiscal impact statement approved by the S.C. Office of State Budget.

Hudson said if Ryberg’s bill doesn’t pass, “we’re not protecting children, which is the state’s business.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.