During the double homicide trial of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh earlier this year, I had occasion to bump into South Carolina state senator Margie Bright Matthews on the streets of Walterboro a time or two. Matthews’ office is located across the street from the historic Colleton County courthouse – where Murdaugh’s trial was held.
I’ve always liked senator Matthews. She’s been kind to me even when I’ve criticized her. Accordingly, I won’t recapitulate my criticisms of her here … but I must refer our audience to a letter to the editor submitted to this outlet two years ago about her.
In that letter, a Walterboro resident named Rebecca Stone slammed Matthews for leveraging her status as a lawyer-legislator – and more specifically for repeatedly invoking her immunity from having to appear in court while ostensibly on “state business.”
“Margie Bright Matthews plays our courts like a fiddle, showing up when she chooses, responding as she chooses and making the process much harder than it should ever have to be,” Stone wrote.
Technically, legislative immunity is only supposed to extend to lawmakers during the months of the year when they are at the S.C. State House in Columbia – i.e. from January through May. But the truth is lawyer-legislators can get out of court anytime they want. And the judicial branch of government isn’t going to do a damn thing to stop them.
How do we know this? Because they haven’t done a damn thing to stop them.
As our Dylan Nolan reported earlier this month, S.C. chief justice Donald Beatty appeared to address the issue of legislative immunity in January of 2022 when he ordered that lawyer legislators must appear for all general sessions matters more than three years old – as well as any bond revocation hearings and family court cases involving children.
However, Beatty instructed court administration to send an email to judges the following day asking them to ignore the previously issued directive.
“The chief justice has now asked me to reach out to you and advise you that you should refrain from calling these cases for trial for the immediate future and until further notice,” the email noted. “If you have any questions concerning this, feel free to reach out to the chief justice directly.”
In other words … pay no attention to that previous edict.
In the meantime, it’s business as usual in South Carolina … meaning hall passes are being doled out no matter what time of year lawmakers are hoping to ditch court.
Take the latest bid by Matthews to get out of work …
(Click to view)
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s three issues-based conferences, three legislative/ partisan caucus conferences and one awards ceremony – each of which Matthews is putting ahead of her duty to the court. And again, this comes after she already received her annual five-month hall pass from having to appear in court between January and May.
While I’m not saying those aren’t worthwhile events … what about those waiting for justice in cases involving Matthews?
While she’s enjoying food, travel and lodging on somebody else’s dime … justice is languishing.
Nevertheless, according to an order from S.C. circuit court judge Robert Bonds, Matthews “demonstrated good cause for her protection request.” As a result, he excused her from having to appear in court during the eighteen days cited in her request.
While I’d love to wax indignant at Matthews for shucking her duty (again), I know she’s not alone in this sort of behavior. So I’ll once again refer back to the letter from Rebecca Stone, whose daughter is a child sex abuse victim and part of a case with multiple child sex abuse victims.
“This is not fair to the victims,” Stone wrote. “If these lawyers cannot fulfill their obligations to cases already on their desk then they should be forced to recuse themselves.”
Once again, though, that would require the judicial branch standing up to its legislative overlords … something that is clearly never going to happen.
Just remember stories like this – and this – the next time you hear lawmakers chant “no justice, no peace.”
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 (soon to be eight) children.
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