S.C. Supreme Court declines to hear case regarding Rep. Merrill’s seat
The South Carolina Supreme Court has responded to a lawsuit filed by four Daniel Island residents regarding the vacant General Assembly seat held by Rep. Jim Merrill, who was suspended from his post last December following multiple charges of alleged ethics violations. It won’t hear the case.
Connolly Dittrich, Sophia Latto, Laurie Steinke and Louis Steinke were listed as “petitioners” in the legal filing about Merrill’s position. They filed the suit against Governor Henry McMaster, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, Senate Pro-Tem Hugh Leatherman, Speaker of the House James Lucas, the State of South Carolina, and Rep. Merrill.
They argued that Governor Henry McMaster may have a legal obligation to appoint a temporary replacement for Merrill during his suspension. Local attorney Jim Davis of Daniel Island, who is representing the group, submitted the suit to the state’s highest court last May.
“The most basic principle of American democracy is that the citizens have the right to representation,” wrote Davis in his argument for original jurisdiction by the court. “This public interest is plainly involved in this action, because the Petitioners, and the other 45,000 (approximate) of South Carolina District 99 are being deprived, through no fault of their own, of representation by a state representative duly elected by them.”
But on Aug. 22, the court denied the plaintiffs’ petitions for original jurisdiction.
“What is important to understand is the court’s decision to deny review of the plaintiffs’ petition is in no way a reflection on the substantive merits of the parties’ claims,” said Davis. “….But it is very frustrating for the plaintiffs that the court didn’t give us any indication as to why they denied it. That’s generally frustrating for everybody involved.”
The petition is similar to one filed around the same time by ethics watchdog John Crangle, who also asked the S.C. Supreme Court to rule on whether or not Governor McMaster can appoint a temporary replacement for suspended Senator John Courson. In an Associated Press article dated May 15, 2017, Attorney General Alan Wilson stated he believed it was “in the public interest” for the State Supreme Court to take up the matter in both cases.
Last December, about a month after being re-elected to a ninth term, Merrill was indicted on two counts of misconduct in office and 28 counts for violations of the Ethics, Government Accountability, and Campaign Reform Act of 1991. In an article in The Daniel Island News at the time, he called the charges against him “unfounded and misleading.” As dictated by state law, Merrill was suspended from his seat pending the outcome of the case.
Davis is not certain at this point if his clients will choose to move forward with further legal action.
“In terms of what happens next, the answer to that is we are taking the matter under consideration and consultation with our clients at this time as to whether we are going to proceed or not.”
When contacted about the recent S.C. Supreme Court decision, Merrill declined to comment.
According to the court’s official legal response, motions to dismiss by Respondents Leatherman and Lucas were also denied, as well as motions to consolidate.