Columbia’s onetime longest-serving councilman, E.W. Cromartie, will never again practice law in South Carolina, a divided state Supreme Court ordered Friday.
In a 3-2 decision, the justices decided to accept Cromartie’s offer to give up his law license forever, an offer he made during oral arguments in October as he fought his pending disbarment. The court’s majority said giving up his license is a tougher penalty than disbarment because it’s permanent.
Cromartie, now 67 years old, spent 10 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion and other charges, ending his 28-year tenure on City Council. In October after completing his prison term, Cromartie told the justices he wanted to avoid the stigma of being forcibly disbarred. Cromartie asked the court for mercy, saying he wanted to protect the reputation of his son.
Ernest W. Cromartie III also is a Columbia attorney and serves as chairman of the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals. The disgraced councilman’s formal name is Ernest W. Cromartie II.
Friday’s order, written by Associate Justice Donald Beatty, states: “Although respondent’s (Cromartie) misconduct warrants the sanction of disbarment, we find respondent’s irrevocable resignation (from the S.C. Bar) is a more severe sanction because respondent is now permanently precluded from practicing law in this state.
“In contrast, a sanction of disbarment would permit respondent to file a petition for reinstatement after five years ...,” the order by Beatty and associate justices John Kittredge and Kay Hearn states.
“Our decision also serves the primary purpose of disbarment,” Beatty wrote in the 12-page order, “which is to protect the public from unscrupulous lawyers and not retribution as respondent has already been punished by the criminal justice system.”
Cromartie has 15 days to surrender his license to the Supreme Court’s clerk. He also must pay $1,359.70 to reimburse the court for the cost of his disciplinary hearings.
Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice Costa Pleicones dissented. They argued, in an opinion written by Pleicones, that the court should follow its disbarment practices.
Pleicones and Toal favor upholding the recommendation of the court’s disciplinary panel, which suggested disbarment as well as imposing the cost of the hearings and requiring that before Cromartie could regain his license he would have to complete training in legal ethics, trust-account management and submit to two years of monitoring of his legal accounts.
Cromartie began his sentence in late January 2011 at the federal prison in Williamsburg County. He had been sentenced to 12 months and one day after pleading guilty to one count of tax evasion and two charges of structuring bank deposits so they wouldn’t be noticed by the Internal Revenue Service.
His sentence was reduced to 10 months, and he returned to Columbia to finish the last part under house arrest. Cromartie has remained largely out of public view, a stark contrast to his high-profile public life as the representative since 1983 of Columbia’s downtown District 2.
His district was drawn with Cromartie’s election in mind, said Jim Quackenbush, a state Democratic political activist who worked in the Carter and Mondale presidential campaigns.
Cromartie was highly popular among his constituents, many of whom live in what had been among the city’s most neglected neighborhoods, including Waverly, where Cromartie grew up.
His backers were so devoted that for years they ignored Cromartie’s chronic troubles with paying property taxes on time and overlooked allegations that he was a slumlord.
Persistent and aggressive, Cromartie was known for delivering for his district using an old-fashioned political network. He came into his own after working in the 1978 gubernatorial Democratic primary for future Gov. Dick Riley. Cromartie helped deliver the African-American wards that would become the core of his power.
The C.A. Johnson High School graduate received a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Michigan State University and graduated from law school at George Washington University before returning to Columbia to open a law practice in 1973.
Cromartie resigned his council seat on March 9, 2011, after pleading guilty. He kept the investigation and criminal charges secret from just about everyone.
After the charges became public, longtime ally and now-retired state Sen. Kay Patterson, said of his friend, “He did good things, but this bad thing just overshadowed all that.”