The South Carolina Freedom Caucus scored a huge victory this week when a federal judge blocked efforts by establishment “Republican” lawmakers to deny them official recognition as a legislative caucus. U.S. district court judge Cameron Currie‘s ruling went much further than that, though.
The veteran judge – appointed by Bill Clinton in 1994 – struck down broad swaths of the Palmetto State’s ethics laws. For years, these statutes have granted unfair advantages to partisan, race-based or gender-based political caucuses – i.e. “certain protected classes.”
No longer …
“The court has found the challenged statutes violate the Constitution and are unenforceable,” Currie wrote in her order (.pdf) granting the Freedom Caucus summary judgment over ten individually named members of the S.C. House Ethics Committee.
Additionally, Currie granted a permanent injunction against the enforcement of these discriminatory statutes – arguing Freedom Caucus members would “suffer irreparable injury by having (their) speech restricted by law.” Not just Freedom Caucus members, either … barring a successful appeal, her order would apply to all special interest caucuses formed by “two or more legislators who seek to be affiliated.”
Needless to say, such a leveling of the playing field is expected to have huge implications on the upcoming 2024 election cycle – likely facilitating a flood of new political spending.
Freedom Caucus leaders filed their lawsuit back in March, accusing legislative leaders of unconstitutionally suppressing their speech and subjecting them to “discriminatory disclosure requirements that apply to special interest caucuses but not legislative caucuses.”
“South Carolina law prohibits the Freedom Caucus from enjoying the same privileges as other caucuses,” its chairman Adam Morgan said at the time. “Caucuses formed on the basis of political party, race, and gender can engage in core political speech, raise money, and influence the outcome of an election. Caucuses formed on the basis of conservative ideology cannot. That violates the First Amendment.”
Judge Currie agreed – and took a red Sharpie to the S.C. Code of Laws. Specifically, her order declared that § 2-17-10 (21) violated both the First and Fourteenth Amendment. That law held that “under no circumstances may a legislative special interest caucus engage in any activity that would influence the outcome of an election or ballot measure.”
Currie also struck down § 2-17-110, which barred lobbyists, lobbyist’s principals and persons acting in their employ from offering “contributions or any other type of funds or financial assistance” to special interest caucuses. According to the judge, this law violated the First Amendment because it “differs from statutes and rules applicable to what legislative caucuses may accept from lobbyist’s principals.”
In other words, prior to this court order the legislature enforced one set of rules for the “protected class” caucuses and another set of rules for everyone else …
(Click to view)
Finally, Currie’s order struck down § 8-13-1333(C) – a law which prohibited special interest caucuses from “soliciting contributions” or accepting funds from lobbyists. According to the judge, this provision also violated the First Amendment because it differed from “statutes and rules applicable to legislative caucuses.”
None of these laws can be enforced any longer in the Palmetto State.
“Defendants and their employees, agents, successors, and all others acting in concert or participating with them are enjoined from enforcing the provisions of such statutes,” Currie ordered.
The ruling is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing battle for the heart and soul of the South Carolina GOP – which enjoys supermajority status in both the S.C. House and State Senate (and controls all of the Palmetto State’s constitutionally elected offices).
Multiple members of the Freedom Caucus were expelled from the GOP earlier this year after refusing to sign a “loyalty oath” crafted to muzzle them from calling attention to the atrocious voting records of their moderate colleagues. They have since been targeted in their districts by shadowy special interest groups.
The group’s leaders have not backed down, though … and now they have a powerful new federal protection in their back pockets.
“Columbia is broken – and I’m glad that we’re starting to see a culture change in Columbia,” Freedom Caucus vice chairman RJ May III told me earlier this year. “The people’s house no longer belongs to the people. It belongs to special interests and powerful politicians and it’s time we change that and return it back to the people that we serve.”
Thanks to Currie’s ruling, May’s group is finally fighting something resembling a fair fight …
THE RULING …
(Via: U.S. District Court)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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