COLUMBIA - S.C. Supreme Court justices grilled attorneys in the fight between House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Alan Wilson on Tuesday, and were sharply critical at times of how the state's top prosecutor has conducted the case.

Harrell, a Charleston Republican and arguably the most powerful lawmaker in the state, has been accused of using campaign funds for personal use and abusing his position to benefit his company and family members. At stake is whether Wilson and a state grand jury may continue an investigation into the House speaker or whether the case must first be vetted by a panel of lawmakers, the House Ethics Committee, which typically deals with such cases.

More broadly, court watchers and Harrell critics worry that a decision to kill an investigation into the powerful House speaker would hamper the state's ability to police lawmakers and show dysfunction in the state's most important institutions. Supporters of the S.C. Policy Council - a libertarian-leaning think tank that has criticized Harrell and asked the attorney general to take the case - helped pack the small courtroom and fill overflow seats in the lobby.

The roughly one-hour hearing was dominated by questions from Chief Justice Jean Toal and Justice Donald Beatty - both former House members - who criticized Wilson for notifying the media of developments in the investigation, including sending the case for review before the state grand jury. "I find it curious that we know all that," she said. When deputy attorney general Creighton Waters, who presented the case for Wilson's side, appeared to offer an explanation at the end of the hearing, Toal cut him off and said it was unnecessary.

Justices also wanted to know why prosecutors had failed to present clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing that would rise to the level of public corruption - the standard for asking the state grand jury to investigate such a case.

Beatty, at one point, challenged the deputy attorney general as to why any criminal case should go forward if nothing of criminal substance has been shown so far against Harrell.

Waters replied on more than one occasion that criminal grand juries mark the start, not the end, of any investigation. He said that the state grand jury was formed in the wake of a corruption scandal in the 1990s, known as Operation Lost Trust, for that purpose and should only be shut down in "extraordinary" circumstances. The attorney general, he said, does not need permission to investigate anyone. "We think the Constitution, the case law and the statutes make it very clear they do not need that permission."

Harrell, who sat with his wife, son and daughter in the court's second row, has maintained his innocence. After the hearing, he addressed the media, saying that if there were evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the attorney general should have presented the facts to a lower court judge who sided with Harrell in May. That same judge, Casey Manning, also signed off on the grand jury investigating Harrell and could have the authority to shut it down, lawyers and justices said in court.

"The justices also made it clear to us that from what they've seen, the attorney general is simply trying to convict me in the court of public opinion because he can't seem to get it done in a courtroom like you should do it," Harrell told reporters.

Wilson attended the hearing but did not comment afterward.

Harrell's attorneys have argued that the House speaker is not seeking immunity from prosecution, only asking that state law be followed for an ethics-related case. His lawyers say that the State Ethics Act is clear: while the attorney general can investigate and prosecute lawmakers, he must do so after the House Ethics Committee vets any ethics-related allegations. The committee is required to turn over allegations of criminal misconduct to the attorney general.

Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, which has raised issues with Harrell's conduct, said that a complaint she gave to Wilson's office should not matter. Justices implied that her complaint should have been taken to the House Ethics Committee.

"The complaint had about as much relevance to the process as if I had taken a coloring book in there," she said. The attorney general, she said, should be able to investigate anyone. Harrell has been accused of using his campaign funds for personal use, including funds that paid for office-related trips on his personal airplane. She said she was surprised at the justices' tone toward the attorney general.

"The speaker of the House is the most powerful elected official in South Carolina," Landess said. "If anyone owed the public a little more explanation, it was Bobby Harrell."

South Carolina is one of just two states that elects judges in the Legislature. Most recently, Harrell openly supported Toal over Justice Costa Pleicones for the chief justice position this year. Before Tuesday's hearing, a good government advocacy group had asked both judges to recuse themselves from the case, which they did not.

That issue and Manning's decision - which surprised many - rankled the policy council and others. "We do not any longer have confidence in the independence and integrity of our system," Landess said.

The justices did not say when a decision on the Harrell case would be made. Regardless, it may not spell the end for the court wrangling between Harrell and Wilson. The House speaker had originally asked the court to rule on whether Wilson has a conflict of interest in the case. A lower court has not ruled on that part of the case.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.