THE SUPREME Court’s unanimous order allowing an investigation to continue into corruption allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell overturned a dangerous ruling that severely reduced the attorney general’s authority.
It’s tempting to make some sweeping pronouncement in the wake of such a highly anticipated ruling: to say it strengthened the attorney general or weakened the Legislature or chipped away at legislators’ status as a protected class or even cleared up questions about the attorney general’s authority.
In fact, it did none of that. What it did is at the same time more important and more mundane: It upheld the rule of law.
Until Circuit Judge Casey Manning ruled in May that the attorney general had to get permission from the House Ethics Committee to investigate a House member, no one would have dreamed that a legislative committee had veto power over criminal investigations. No one would have dreamed that a legislative seat conferred upon its holder immunity from the laws that apply to all other government officials.
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What the court did was to return us to the status quo ante, to a time when the State Grand Jury was holding its secret investigation into whether there was anything wrong with the way Mr. Harrell spent campaign funds, and Mr. Harrell was making his audacious attempt to have Attorney General Alan Wilson removed as prosecutor, based on embarrassingly flimsy evidence of an alleged “political vendetta.”
The court agreed, as did all parties, that when a prosecutor is using the State Grand Jury, the empaneling judge does indeed have a duty to make sure that he doesn’t veer off course. That he doesn’t, for instance, start an investigation into gang activity and then switch to common street crime, which is outside the Grand Jury’s jurisdiction.
The problem was that Judge Manning’s inquiry into subject-matter jurisdiction itself veered off course, into questions about the separation-of-powers doctrine, and in that analysis he misapplied the constitution and the statutes and the court’s previous rulings.
Indeed, his order was so far afield that it seems difficult to comprehend how we could have doubted that the Supreme Court would overturn it. If anything, the near panic it provoked bespeaks the lack of confidence South Carolinians have in our judiciary.
We hope the unanimous ruling will help restore that confidence. Not because it was extraordinary, but because it was ordinary. Because the justices did not change the law but rather kept it from being changed by the courts. They refused to allow the constitution and the statutes and their own precedents to be twisted, ignored or rewritten. They did, in short, both the least and the most that we should be able to expect our courts to do.