Supreme Secrecy

July 17, 2014

Inside Insight

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ariail supreme secrecyHAVEN’T WE HAD ENOUGH SECRECY FOR A WHILE?

The Supreme Court rightly reversed Judge Casey Manning’s bizarre ruling that would have put state lawmakers beyond the law for corruption. The Court clearly affirmed what was obvious: the attorney general has the constitutional authority to pursue any crime in the state and does not need the permission of a legislative ethics committee to do it.

That should have been the end of it, but the Court snuck in a footnote declaring that “[d]ue to the secrecy afforded state grand jury proceedings, future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter, should be held in camera” (“in camera” meaning “in chambers,” i.e. out of the public view).

That makes absolutely no sense. Judge Manning was right to rule that the hearings weren’t part of the secret grand jury proceedings and thus should be open to the public. Speaker Harrell’s attempt to have the attorney general thrown off the case, and to do it in a secret hearing – an attempt that only came to the surface when The State’s John Monk exposed it – outraged people all over the state. After Judge Manning dispensed with the issue it wasn’t raised again until the Supreme Court inexplicably re-imposed secrecy.

Several attorneys told The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett they believed the Court “slipped in the secrecy recommendation in a footnote to help Harrell.” Unfortunately, absent any precedent or explanation for going against the Manning’s initial ruling, we are left to assume the worst possible motives for the Court’s decision to recommend secrecy.

No legal expert has offered a plausible explanation as to why hearings surrounding the grand jury investigation into corruption allegations against the most powerful politician in South Carolina should be held in secret. Nothing involved in the actual investigation could be presented to anyone except the judge in secret. Harrell and his attorneys are not entitled to information from the grand jury proceedings until the decision is made on whether or not to indict, which means there would be nothing presented in a hearing in which Harrell and his lawyers were allowed to be present that should not also be heard by the public. That’s particularly true when Harrell is trying to remove the public’s advocate from his case.

Speaker Harrell claims the attorney general has a conflict and is not impartial. First, there isn’t much that would qualify as a conflict for a prosecutor except prosecutorial misconduct. Second, Harrell is not entitled to what he calls an “impartial prosecutor.” He’s entitled to defend himself and he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence and to an impartial tribunal. But he is not entitled to a special justice system with rules made to apply only to him – which is clearly what he wants and expects.

The attorney general is a prosecutor, not a judge. It isn’t his job to be impartial. He is our advocate. Certainly he’s required to be fair and reasonable in assessing probable cause, but once he’s done that, he becomes an advocate for the truth on behalf of the citizens.

Let’s be honest: the Speaker doesn’t want an impartial investigation. What he wants is for his own staff to investigate him, in secret, through the House Ethics Committee. He couldn’t care less about the impartiality of those who are supposed to be objective, such as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for whom he actively and publicly campaigned and who ignored calls for her recusal. And while the Speaker wants to shut the public out of hearings addressing who investigates him, he wants secrecy ignored when it comes to the substance of the Grand Jury investigation. Harrell has repeatedly demanded the release of the SLED report that led to the grand jury investigation, knowing that report is now part of the investigation and can’t be released.

Such blatant disregard for the public good is unfortunately expected from the state’s most powerful politician. But the entire system is on trial right now, and the fear that our state government is almost entirely controlled by a handful of legislative leaders who are above the law is clearly valid. That’s precisely why there should be no secrecy in any court proceedings surrounding the investigation of the Speaker of the House. The state constitution clearly states that “all courts shall be public, and every person shall have speedy remedy therein for wrongs sustained.”

There is no good reason to keep these hearings secret. Citizens are increasingly angry over having to fight their own government for rights and privileges that other states’ citizens take for granted – as they should. This process continues to prove why the South Carolina’s entire government structure has to be torn down and replaced with a true republic before what’s left of the rule of law is erased.