Lawmakers throw succession into disarray

December 5, 2016

Inside Insight

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
By ASHLEY LANDESS

sc senate seats

One sentence goes missing in bill to ratify constitution

Over the course of several decades, South Carolina’s legislature has come to dominate the other two branches of government. How did it happen? Mostly through procedural tricks and loopholes.

That’s why the ongoing controversy over the chain of succession is so disturbing, and why Tuesday’s scheduled Senate election of a new president pro tempore is more important than it’s ever been.

As it’s currently worded after a 2014 constitutional amendment, the constitution now leaves no room for interpretation: the governor has the authority to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office. Up until now, most everyone assumed that the 2014 amendment – the main change of which was to put the governor and lieutenant governor on the same electoral ticket – wouldn’t go into effect until 2018. True, the governor and lieutenant governor wouldn’t run on the same ticket until 2018, but the rest of the amendment is effective upon ratification.

But that only has to do with the legislation ratifying the amendment – not the amendment itself. In fact, the original resolution passed by two-thirds of the legislature said the changes should all happen in 2018. And the ballot question approved by voters said the same thing.

Somehow, though, the language now in the constitution says that when the lieutenant governor resigns that office, the governor appoints his replacement – effective immediately.

So where’s the problem?

The amendment ratified by the legislature is missing the one-sentence section that mandated all changes occur in 2018. And the omission of that sentence – whether the omission was deliberate or not – completely changes what should happen in the now likely event that there’s a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office.

Not only that. Thanks to the absence of that one sentence, the chain of succession is no longer spelled out in the constitution at all. It’s only addressed in state law. And the law says if both the governor and lieutenant governor leave office, the president pro tem of the Senate would assume and exercise the duties of the governor – without resigning from the Senate.

Pretty scary stuff.

Current Senate president pro tem, Hugh Leatherman, who seeks another year in that position, has explicitly said that he has no interest in doing what the constitution says he must do. It makes no sense, in these circumstances, to put him back in that position.

Clearly this is a matter for the Supreme Court. Legislators do not – and absolutely should not – have the authority to change what the people voted for, intentionally or otherwise. The process by which this all happened has to be explored publicly and quickly to figure out how something as dire as nullifying the people’s vote could happen, and how to ensure it never does again.

It seems likely that the Court would order the restoration of the original language, which would mean the Senate president pro tem will be called on to assume the lieutenant governor’s office. Senators need to ensure that the president pro tem they choose is prepared to fulfill his constitutional duty. It’s bad enough that one lawmaker has so much power – and that’s the ultimate problem – but to put someone in that positon who defies the constitution he took an oath to uphold would be reckless.

We’ve had enough blatant defiance of the rule of law in this state. This is the perfect opportunity to begin to restore it.