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IT’S THE S.C. SUPREME COURT, BABY!

FITSNews – November 29, 2007 – Since our coverage of Beattygate and the South Carolina bar exam scandal has probably gotten us kicked off the S.C. Supreme Court‘s Christmas Card List this year, we figure there’s no danger in breaking the news this afternoon that the Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel is reportedly being investigated by federal authorities for the Gestapo-like search and seizure methods it uses in investigating ethical complaints against attorneys.

Employing a tool called the “Demand Subpoena Duces Tecum” – which sounds a lot like a form of lubrication we’d rather not get into – the Supreme Court can send an officer with a badge and a gun into any lawyers’ office at any time (with or without notice) and seize any file they want right there on the spot. In addition to this highly questionable investigative practice, which has been explicitly-sanctioned and employed by the Justices in numerous cases reviewed by FITSNews, the Court also doesn’t seem especially keen on having anybody looking over its shoulders.

Freedom from illegal search and seizure? Due process? Right to an appeal? If you’re an attorney in South Carolina, you can forget about all of those things …

“The attorney discipline process is South Carolina is exclusively under the jurisdiction of the South Carolina Supreme Court,” the Justices write in one of many cases we reviewed. “The South Carolina attorney discipline system does not allow for and expressly excludes any indications of due process in cases. The five members of the South Carolina Supreme Court (have) sole, complete power and control over all aspects of the attorney discipline process. There is no group, political subdivision or any other branch of government in South Carolina that has any authority to review the actions of the South Carolina Supreme Court and its functiorial units. All rules related to attorney discipline show that any actions taken by the functional units are only recommendations to the Supreme Court (which has) complete discretion over all cases.”

Unless we can’t read – and having spent some time in S.C. public schools, that’s a distinct possibility – when you consider the Court’s Spanish Inquisition-style information gathering methods, its disdain for due process and the absence of any recourse whatesover for attorneys to appeal the Justices’ rulings, you’re left with nothing short of totalitarianism.

No wonder none the dozens of attorneys (and attorney-legislators) we’ve interviewed in the wake of the bar exam controversy declined to speak with us on the record. Why would they say anything? Especially when the Court can snuff out the career of any attorney it wants, at any time, for any reason and without any threat of facing the consequences of such an action.

Well, almost.

According to our sources, federal investigators are taking a closer look at the Court’s “Stalin-esque” methods after suspicions were raised in two recent cases involving South Carolina attorneys who were “inquisitioned,” disbarred by the Court and subsequently filed for bankruptcy.

One of these sources, who works for a federal agency in Washington D.C. (one with remarkably far-reaching oversight authority), declined to discuss specific cases with FITSNews, but did say that the Court’s tactics “raised a lot of red flags” within his agency.

And while our source did not confirm whether or not a federal investigation was currently underway, he refused to confirm that one wasn’t, either.

Law enforcement sources back in South Carolina also declined to discuss any potential involvement in an investigation of the Court, although one source did confirm that a former Court investigator was fired last year for “irregularities in the investigation of lawyers,” and that the firing – which was authorized by Chief Justice Jean Toal and former Disciplinary Counsel Chief Henry Richardson – may have been an effort to shield the Court from future problems.

Irrespective of the status of federal or state investigations, the unlimited and unchecked power of the Court – and the potential that exists for its abuse – is downright frightening, and apparently not widely-known among those in the legal profession.

Several lawyers we spoke with for this story had no idea that the Court had such sweeping authority over the profession, but one of them didn’t hesitate to question that unbridled influence in light of the poor judgment shown by the Court throughout the recent bar exam scandal.

“If the Justices are willing to fix a bar exam as a political favor, what’s next?” the attorney told us. “What’s stopping them from wrecking somebody’s career as a political favor?”

Our point exactly.