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Tom Davis: SC Senate Must Clarify Executive Succession




S.C. Senator Tom Davis says he will file a petition with the Palmetto State’s Supreme Court this month in an effort to resolve the ongoing debate over looming vacancies in the state’s executive branch of government.

As we exclusively reported last month, a debate is raging in South Carolina over who would fill the state’s lieutenant governor’s office in the event its current occupant – Henry McMaster – ascends to the governor’s office.

The governor’s office is likely to become vacant early next year thanks to S.C. governor Nikki Haley‘s decision to accept an appointment as United States’ ambassador to the United Nations.

The looming line of executive succession matters because it could take the state’s most powerful politician – current S.C. Senate president Hugh Leatherman – and “elevate” him to the largely ceremonial, politically impotent lieutenant governor’s office.

Leatherman has made it clear that – one way or another – that isn’t happening.

How should the office be filled, though?

The last time the lieutenant governor’s office became vacant it was filled – after a lengthy game of musical chairs – by the president of the State Senate, then-Democrat Yancey McGill.

In fact McGill was elected president of the Senate (a job he held for fifteen minutes) for the sole purpose of become lieutenant governor.  No one else wanted the job.

In fact the Senate president at the time – liberal Republican John Courson – resigned the office expressly to avoid become lieutenant governor.  And numerous other Republican Senators took a pass on accepting the office in his stead.

Some State House observers believe that the process by which McGill became lieutenant governor defied South Carolina’s recently amended State Constitution, though.

From Article IV, Section 11 of the S.C. Constitution …

In the case of the removal of the Lieutenant Governor from office by impeachment, death, resignation, disqualification, disability, or removal from the State, the Governor shall appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate, a successor to fulfill the unexpired term.

This constitutional change was approved by voters in 2012, with an effective date of May 29, 2014.  In other words – according to this interpretation of the constitution – Haley should have appointed the lieutenant governor in 2014 as opposed to the goat show that wound up taking place in the State Senate.

Oh … this interpretation also holds that McMaster would appoint the next lieutenant governor of South Carolina once Haley resigns to take her new job in New York.

Is this interpretation accurate?

Not according to Davis, who says he is prepared to argue before the Supreme Court that the referendum voters approved in 2012 specifically authorized changes “beginning with the general election of 2018.”  Obviously this runs counter to the May 2014 “effective date” lawmakers approved.

Davis says Senators need to unanimously agree to change this effective date during their organizational session this month – otherwise he will file his petition with the Supreme Court.

“Anything short of such unanimous agreement and I will file,” he said.

Davis’ efforts raise an interesting question: If Senators indeed must amend the law in order to affirm the existing line of executive succession (which it seems they do), that means the law was not followed in June 2014 when McGill was elevated to the lieutenant governor’s office.

It also means that unless the Senate changes the law prior to the office becoming vacant, there is a compelling case to be made that the state’s new governor – McMaster – would get to appoint his own replacement.

(Banner via Travis Bell Photography)