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Ruling could bar farmer from henhouse

Posted: July 11, 2014 8:01 a.m.
Updated: July 14, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Well, at least they got one thing right.

Wednesday, justices of the S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson -- wait, let me qualify this as it really should be -- that a state grand jury can continue looking into allegations of public corruption against S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Harrell may be “disappointed with the court’s ruling,” as he said in a press release, and Wilson might be justified in celebrating a little bit, but the justices’ ruling on the state grand jury is more a win for that system than it is of Wilson.

In fact, justices left the door wide open to replace Wilson as the person leading the grand jury’s investigation.

That, in my opinion is wrong.

Perhaps I’m being a little dramatic? What the justices actually said was that the circuit court, where this case began, should be the venue in which a decision on Wilson’s involvement should be made.

On the other hand, it’s in the circuit court where things went sideways in this case. It was in such a courtroom where Judge L. Casey Manning -- going beyond the arguments either side was making -- ruled that only the S.C. House Ethics Committee should investigate the allegations against Harrell.

I’ve seen Manning in action before, right here in Kershaw County, presiding over primarily criminal cases. As with any judge, there are decisions he’s made I agreed with and others I did not. (I must also tell you that Manning has a wicked sense of humor, of which I’ve been on the receiving end at least twice that I can remember. I know it was all in good fun, of course. At least I think so.)

However, I did not agree with his ruling in this case.

I fully admit I’m not a legal expert, but it seems clear to me -- and if it does for me, it should for almost any lay person -- that Wilson has the right to investigate any criminal allegation levied against any citizen of this state, including our legislators. Claiming otherwise puts us clearly in what cartoonist Robert Ariail once depicted as allowing the fox to go back to “his” henhouse. I’d go even further: the foxes have gotten rid of the hens and turned the legislature into a fox den.

At least, that’s what it seemed Manning was allowing Harrell and those legislators who think as he does to do. Luckily, our state’s highest court decided that shouldn’t be the case.

Unfortunately, by ruling that Manning or (hopefully) some other circuit court judge should still decide if Wilson ought to be in charge of a grand jury case against a legislator brings us back to the henhouse analogy: the farmer could be barred from even checking the henhouse.

State law is pretty clear about the Attorney General’s role with grand juries: “The Attorney General or his designee shall attend sessions of a state grand jury and shall serve as its legal advisor. The Attorney General or his designee shall examine witnesses, present evidence, and draft indictments and reports upon the direction of a state grand jury.”

However, an attorney general can be disqualified if a conflict of interest is determined. I don’t see where Wilson has a conflict of interest concerning Harrell, though.

Another issue came up in the justice’s ruling that’s troubled a few people. A footnote on page 12 of the ruling reads as follows:

“Due to the secrecy afforded state grand jury proceedings, future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter, should be held in camera,” which means in secret.

I’ve checked the state code and -- as much as I am for as much openness as possible, including in our courts -- the justices may have gotten this one right ... but perhaps not completely.

“State grand juries are secret,” the state code reads. The only people allowed in a state grand jury proceeding are the jurors themselves, the attorney general or designee, court reporter, translator and testifying witnesses (one at a time). Unless otherwise directed by the court, grand jury testimony can only be revealed to the attorney general or designee; government personnel necessary to assist the attorney general in enforcing the state’s criminal laws; and, of course, attorneys representing anyone who provides testimony to a grand jury.

In all those cases, each must keep those proceedings secret.

However, I see nothing about keeping secret aspects of a case that take place away from the ears and eyes of grand jurors.

In other words, if a hearing  to determine Wilson’s continued leadership of the investigation against Harrell is held in a circuit court judge’s courtroom and not in the presence of the grand jury, I don’t see anything in state law that would keep the public from attending.

In fact, I would insist that such matters be open. As long as nothing that would go before the grand jury is revealed in open court (there’s a reason for sidebars, folks), I believe the public has a right to know exactly who is going to be leading investigations against a sitting legislator and, if not, why. Of course, perhaps it’s just not possible to do that without exposing what a grand jury should hear in secret.

Harrell says Wilson is on a political witch hunt, and that Wilson hasn’t shown that Harrell’s violated any laws. Somehow, though, I don’t think Wilson would have fought this hard for nothing.

At least we can be glad that it will be grand jurors -- regular John and Jane Citizens -- who will be determining if Bobby Harrell broke the law and not his fellow foxes … er, legislators.

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