Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SC justices scold GOP lawyer for ignoring order

The State
Seanna Adcox

As if it makes a difference.
South Carolina Supreme Court justices on Monday scolded a Republican Party lawyer for appearing to ignore a court order, and weighed whether to boot more candidates from primary ballots just one week before voters go to the polls.

The state high court heard arguments Monday on a case brought by Florence County Democrats. It accuses the county's Republican Party of defying the justices' order last month by certifying candidates for the ballot who had not properly filed economic disclosure papers.

The justices seemed most concerned with the practicality of enforcing their ruling, noting that absentee ballots have already been sent out. A decision could come as early as Tuesday. The primary is June 12. No matter what their ruling, it's expected to result in more lawsuits.

Florence County Democrats contend they obeyed the earlier order, decertifying some candidates as the county's Republican leaders recertified everyone. While the case heard Tuesday involved only Florence County, party leaders in other counties are suspected of doing the same.

Chief Justice Jean Toal chastised GOP attorney Kevin Hall, saying justices are puzzled by his written assurance to the court that the Republican Party carefully followed the May 2 ruling.

"It turns out that's not so. We're disappointed in you and your client," Toal said in an opening statement to Hall. "We feel you've let us down in terms of being straight with the court."

Other justices also pounced. Justice Don Beatty called the Republican attorney's argument creative but foolish, and said the document alleging careful compliance was an insult to the court's intelligence. He believes sanctions are in order.

At issue is a 1991 state law requiring candidates to turn in a "statement of economic interest" - meant to show voters any potential conflicts of interest - when they file their candidacy. The law exempted incumbents at all government levels, who must annually file the forms by April 15. Legislators say the law was written that way to avoid duplication in election years. But it contributed to confusion after a 2010 law required online filing. While the intent was to reduce paperwork, the Legislature didn't match up separate sections of the law pertaining to annual and candidate filing.

The high court ruled that the state law still requires those seeking office to file paperwork in person within the two-week filing period. It directed the parties to recertify only those who followed the rules and submit their revised candidate lists by May 4. Nearly 200 candidates were tossed statewide, but attorneys contend more would have been removed had all party leaders complied.

The Republicans' defense centers on who's considered a public official. They argue that the definition includes those considering running for office, so the law requiring candidates to turn in an economic interest form at the same time they file to run doesn't apply.

But Justice John Kittredge said that suggests everybody's a public official, and the law is pointless.
Hall told the court it was not the party's intent to mislead, but the party didn't think about the issue of exemption until after the high court's ruling, and figured it missed that reasoning.

Justice Costa Pleicones said that's a disingenuous argument. And Toal noted that Florence County GOP Chairman Bill Pickle didn't use it when he announced in a statement that he was certifying everyone, so the GOP's new argument did not factor into his decision or anyone else's.

"It IS the case," she said, interrupting Hall. "Let's be fair with each other now. There wasn't a soul around making that argument at the time. You didn't say a thing about that even in your own first response in this case."

Hall said the problem may be widespread, as party leaders in other counties have used the argument, so the justices' ruling could affect ballots in more than just Florence County.

Attorneys for the county and state election commissions asked the court to require that the names of ineligible candidates be struck from ballot machines, and that absentee votes for those names not be counted.

"We assume you meant what you said" in your ruling last month, said Liz Crum, attorney for the state agency.

She also asked that political parties be required to put signs up informing voters that their vote won't count if cast for certain people.

Recalibrating the voting machines to remove names will take nearly seven days, said Malloy McEachin, attorney for the Florence County election commission, noting the need for a speedy decision.

"We have a narrow window," he said.

But if the problem is widespread, deciding who's ineligible might be tricky, particularly outside of the Florence County lawsuit that names the disputed candidates. Only the parties can determine who can appear on the ballot in party primaries. State and county election officials must accept whomever they certify.

Toal said the party officials in each county will know.

"But I thought we made that clear before," said Justice Kaye Hearn.

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2012/06/04/2302367/sc-supreme-court-hears-1-more.html#storylink=omni_popular#storylink=cpy

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