Cindi Ross Scoppe

Ratepayers sued the state, and the attorney general’s office is helping them

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office is siding against the state in a lawsuit challenging SCE&G’s nuclear surcharge. To Mr. Wilson’s immediate right i Solicitor General Bob Cook, who is arguing the case.
SC Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office is siding against the state in a lawsuit challenging SCE&G’s nuclear surcharge. To Mr. Wilson’s immediate right i Solicitor General Bob Cook, who is arguing the case. gmelendez@thestate.com

When Pete Strom and a bunch of other lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit in September to make SCE&G give back the billions of dollars it has charged ratepayers for its now-abandoned nuclear reactors, they also sued the state of South Carolina.

But you wouldn’t know that if you sat in the courtroom or read the legal briefs. Some of the most powerful arguments on behalf of the ratepayers are coming from Solicitor General Bob Cook — who works for Attorney General Alan Wilson.

It’s not the first time the the attorney general’s office has sided with the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state. But it’s rare.

Then-Attorney General Henry McMaster famously did that same thing in 2004 when Ed Sloan filed a lawsuit alleging that the Life Sciences Act was an orgy of unconstitutional bobtailing. Rather than defending the state or stepping aside, as attorneys general usually do, Mr. McMaster developed the nuanced argument that became the state Supreme Court ruling, which in turn led to a string of cases that did more than most people realize to rein in the once-all-powerful General Assembly. Until the court got tired of doing that. But that’s another story.

As Mr. McMaster explained to me at the time, unlike the lawyers who work for state agencies, the job of the attorney general isn’t to defend the agency he works for, or even the state of South Carolina. It’s to defend the state constitution. In the Life Sciences case, the attorney general was served with the lawsuit, studied it and determined that the plaintiff was right, that the Legislature had violated the state constitution.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Could the fate of the nuclear surcharge come down to a 3.5 x 7 piece of paper?

SC nuclear debacle, by the numbers

SC nuclear debacle: a timeline

3 numbers you need to know about SCE&G, Dominion and our energy future

You’re not going to stop paying nuclear surcharge, even if House bill becomes law

How awful would it really be if SCE&G went bankrupt?

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LeBrian Cleckley v. SCE&G and the state of South Carolina could be the most important of several lawsuits filed against SCANA, as it provides the courts a clear opportunity to declare all or part of the Base Load Review Act unconstitutional and reduce or eliminate SCE&G’s nuclear surcharge even if the Legislature fails to act.

The case was filed the day after Mr. Cook issued the opinion for the attorney general’s office concluding that the 2007 law was “constitutionally suspect” because it allowed SCE&G to charge customers billions of dollars for electricity that they will never receive. His opinion also said the Legislature could modify the law retroactively to reduce the amount of money SCANA can recover from ratepayers and possibly even force refunds — something lawmakers are now struggling over.

Given that timing, it was a pretty safe guess that the attorney general’s office would not be defending the state against the lawsuit. And it’s not.

More information

Here are some other pieces I’ve written about this that you might find helpful:

Did South Carolina’s own ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law make the nuclear fiasco worse?

Legislators’ micromanagement limits fix to regulatory system behind nuclear debacle

Why legislators shouldn’t be allowed to accept donations, jobs from utilities

There are 3 ways to cut Santee Cooper customers’ bills; 2 of them are worth exploring

Don’t be so sure SCE&G can pay for nuclear debacle without going bankrupt

What else we learned from that SCE&G bankruptcy report

Three ways the Dominion-SCE&G deal could fall apart

4 changes the Legislature needs to make after the $9 billion nuclear debacle

Is this the best deal SCE&G customers can get? Why finding out could cost us

Still want to run government like a business? That’s insane

Buying the benefit of the doubt: How donations secured SCE&G the means to squander billions.

How much worse was the original Bechtel nuclear report?

Where to hide nuclear secrets? Behind a lawyer, of course

Santee Cooper’s role in SC nuclear debacle looks worse by the day

How ‘waste not, want not’ became ‘spend more, profit more’

SCE&G nuclear fiasco: It’s complicated. Here are some explanations.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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