Editorial: Ask judge to delay, not reverse, ruling invalidating Richland election law

September 8, 2013 

— CIRCUIT JUDGE Thomas Cooper’s decision to overturn the law that combined the Richland County election and voter registration commissions was wonderful, if not surprising, news.

Because it addresses such a crucial function of government, it sends a powerful reminder to the Legislature that the state constitution prohibits them from passing laws that apply to only one county unless they can show there was no alternative. Lawmakers are so lackadaisical about the constitution that they didn’t bother giving any reason for the Richland-only law, much less a compelling one.

Moreover, it dismantles the combined commission that oversaw the combined office that made an unmitigated disaster of the November election, rewarded the director who oversaw that disaster with a cushy job, handed a bill for getting her that job to county taxpayers, and then followed up with an unprofessional and possibly illegal job of selecting her replacement. Judge Cooper’s order allows legislators to start over, and perhaps do something right this time.

Unfortunately, there’s a short-term downside, and it’s significant: Columbia city elections are scheduled for Nov. 5, Richland County is planning a vote on a bond issue for the library, and the old law that controls in the wake of the court order doesn’t allow election or voter registration commissioners to be appointed before then.

There is a strong legal argument that the people who were serving on the boards under the old law are now back in office, but it’s not a slam-dunk case, which means anyone unhappy with the election results would have an opening to sue and potentially overturn them.

The only sure way to keep from interrupting the November elections is for the defendants — Richland Sens. John Courson, Darrell Jackson, Joel Lourie and John Scott — to file an appeal, which would automatically stay the order until the appeal is heard.

But while the constitutionality of single-county laws is on occasion a close call, this was never one of those occasions. And as much as we would welcome yet another Supreme Court order reminding the Legislature that it must obey the constitution even when it’s inconvenient — since the Legislature so clearly needs those reminders — it would be outrageous to waste taxpayers’ money and the court’s time appealing this decision.

Instead, the senators should ask Judge Cooper to stay his order just through the election, in order to avoid a needless disruption. That’s an unusual move, but Richland County voters are in an unusual position, and the Supreme Court has on more than one occasion declared a law unconstitutional and then temporarily stayed its ruling to give the Legislature time to write a new law and avoid the chaos that otherwise would ensue.

If that doesn’t work, then the senators could file an appeal — an appeal that they agree to drop as soon as the election is certified. Rather than wasting an ounce of energy on a futile effort to preserve their ill-conceived unconstitutional law, they need to let us have our elections while they concentrate on a long-term solution that does not violate the constitution.

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