The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether Attorney General Alan Wilson has the authority to prosecute House Speaker Bobby Harrell. A state judge ruled last month that Wilson cannot prosecute Harrell before the House Ethics Committee determines there's a criminal case.
Assistant Attorney General Creighton Waters opened the hearing with a basic question: do the South Carolina attorney general and state grand jury "need permission from the House Ethics Committee before they have jurisdiction to do their job?"
Attorney General Alan Wilson has been investigating House Speaker and fellow Republican Bobby Harrell for public corruption. The allegations against him include that he used his elected position to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business.
But state judge Casey Manning ruled last month the House Ethics Committee has exclusive jurisdiction over ethics violations, so the attorney general should've waited for House Speaker's fellow lawmakers to act first.
Here's the way Harrell's lawyer, Bobby Stepp, framed the question to the Supreme Court:
"The issue in this case is whether the attorney general, under the guise of a criminal investigation, can usurp the exclusive jurisdiction, the exclusive statutory jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee," he said.
But Chief Justice Jean Toal referenced an earlier case where the Supreme Court found "the absence of a complaint to the ethics commission will never operate as a limitation on the state's independent right to initiate a criminal prosecution."
Chief Justice Toal asked Stepp if he agreed. He did, but contended that the allegations against Speaker Harrell are civil in nature, so they belong before the House Ethics Committee.
He said when Judge Manning's court asked for evidence of criminal activity last month, "it didn't get any."
"So we don't have any evidence in this case that the grand jury was acting in respect to information about public corruption," Stepp said.
That's an issue several justices kept coming back to.
"I'm at the point where Judge Manning says there's no evidence of criminal, you're not presenting any evidence of a crime," Justice Donald Beatty said, "therefore you're not pursuing the purpose of impaneling this grand jury."
Beatty asked, why didn't the attorney general didn't present that evidence?
Assistant Attorney General Waters said grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret. And when the attorney general did try to bring up the specifics to Judge Manning last month, Waters said the judge cut him off, saying we don't need to go too far.
"This is the very judge who had seen that information that we brought him, so of course we thought, OK, he knows what we're talking about," Waters said. "That's the information that we brought. And that was the information that was after a 10-month SLED investigation."
Waters pointed out the chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, also views this as a criminal case.
The state Supreme Court could reach its decision within the next few weeks.