June 5, 2009

S.C. high court orders Sanford to accept money

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The state’s top court ruled unanimously Thursday that Gov. Mark Sanford must apply for the disputed $700 million in federal stimulus money.

The S.C. Supreme Court also took the rare step of issuing a writ of mandamus, which orders the governor to apply for the money.

Chief Justice Jean Toal and three of the four other justices — Donald Beatty, John Kittredge and John Waller — said a state law passed last month requires Sanford to apply for the money and doesn’t conflict with the federal law providing the stimulus funds.

“Under the constitution and laws of this State, the General Assembly is the sole entity with the power to appropriate funds, including federal funds,” the four justices wrote. “Therefore, the General Assembly has the authority to mandate that the Governor apply for federal funds which it has appropriated.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Costa Pleicones said state lawmakers complied with an amendment of the federal law — proposed by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn in response to Sanford’s refusal to accept the money — by adopting a concurrent resolution accepting the funds and passing a law designating how the money will be spent.

“In short, South Carolina has fulfilled all the requirements set forth in federal law to demonstrate that it desires (the federal funds,)” Pleicones said.Sanford contended the federal law gave him final say over the money.

As for issuing the writ of mandamus, the other four justices said that “while we recognize and respect Governor Sanford’s sincerely held beliefs concerning (the federal law), those convictions do not alter the ministerial nature of the legal duty now before him.”

The justices added that the decision to issue a writ is “an extremely delicate one.”

The court issued its 10-page ruling with blazing fast speed, just a day after the justices heard arguments in two lawsuits about the stimulus money and three days after a federal judge transferred the cases back to the court.

In response to a July 1 federal deadline to apply for the funds, Toal announced at the end of Wednesday’s hearing that her court would issue a ruling by week’s end.

University of South Carolina constitutional law professor Thomas Crocker said Thursday he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.

“South Carolina precedents are fairly clear that the Legislature has the power to appropriate funds, and the governor has the duty to spend the funds as directed,” he said.

Said Columbia attorney Richard Gergel, who represented the S.C. Education Association in a friend-of-the-court brief, “It was a very predictable outcome of well-settled law.”

The Supreme Court previously has issued mandamus writs to force officials to comply with particular laws, Crocker said, though he added it “doesn’t happen often.”

It’s unclear exactly when the last time the high court issued such a writ to a governor, though Thursday’s ruling cited a 1939 case involving then-Gov. Burnett Maybank.

Columbia lawyer John Reagle, one of the attorneys representing the S.C. Association of School Administrators, which filed one of the two lawsuits, said Thursday he hoped Sanford would “promptly comply with the court order.”

“It’s an extraordinary situation,” Reagle said. “We are really in dire need of these funds immediately.”

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, who represented the state as a defendant in one of the two lawsuits, said the ruling was “well-reasoned.” In an earlier written opinion, McMaster said the Legislature, through its budgetary authority, likely could compel the governor to apply for the money.

Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who represented Chapin High School senior Casey Edwards and USC law student Justin Williams, who filed one of the lawsuits, said Thursday Sanford doesn’t understand state history.

“Sanford keeps implying there are three co-equal branches of government,” he said. “They are not co-equal in South Carolina. Governors were elected by the Legislature for almost the first 100 years. We’ve always had some distrust, whether it was of the king or the governor.”

In Thursday’s ruling, the court said its decision “should not be construed as a comment on the policy differences between Governor Sanford and the General Assembly.”

“We discharge our duty to honor the rule of law, nothing more,” the court said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484.

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