Attorney General Alan Wilson will be allowed to continue pursuing a case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Wilson's office was appealing a trial judge's order halting that investigation into Harrell. An earlier circuit court ruling from Judge Casey Manning said the case did not belong in court and instead should be up to lawmakers on the House Ethics Committee to decide.
Harrell's attorneys also argued Wilson should be removed from the case due to a conflict.
With this unanimous ruling, justices say the case does belong in the circuit court to decide whether Wilson should be disqualified from participating in State Grand Jury proceedings.
"We weren't sure what to expect, but it is very, very good news that the court restored the rule of law," said Ashley Landess, resident of the South Carolina Policy Council. "We do see a good ruling here. The justices did the right thing.
"These were criminal allegations of public corruption. That's what we alleged from the beginning. Frankly, the ethics committees are badly organized and construed and conceived. They should not exist at all."
The highest court likened the Ethics Committee to a mere "professional organization" and said its authority "does not affect the Attorney General's authority to initiate a criminal investigation in any way."
"This is our most powerful politician," Landess said. "He is certainly entitled to the presumption of innocence, and no one has ever suggested otherwise, but I don't believe he is entitled to special treatment in the justice system."
What's concerning for Landess is a footnote in the opinion.
It says some future court arguments related to the case should be held in private behind closed doors.
"We won't be allowed in the courtroom this time," Landess said. "There will be no reporters. There will be no coverage. We won't really know what takes place in that courtroom. And you know what? Right now, in South Carolina, that's not a very good idea."
Mark Powell, Wilson's spokesman, said Wilson would not be "commenting at this time."
Harrell, meanwhile, released a statement after the ruling, saying he was disappointed in the court's ruling but noted what the justices said about Wilson's jurisdiction on this case.
"It was Judge Manning, not my attorneys, who brought up the jurisdictional issue in this case. The only thing we originally asked the court was for a fair and impartial prosecutor to be put in charge of this matter. As Supreme Court Justices clearly pointed out at the hearing, the Attorney General has improperly handled this case from the beginning," said Harrell.
Harrell has been the House speaker in South Carolina since 2005. He believes the allegations and investigation are both politically motivated, according to the Associated Press.
Harrell added, "As the Circuit Court ruling stated, after more than a year of investigations the Attorney General was still pursuing this case even though he could not point to a single shred of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Clearly the Attorney General's motivations have been corrupted by political motives and that is why he needs to be replaced with a fair and impartial prosecutor."
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