The South Carolina Supreme Court sent the ethics complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell to the right place when it agreed unanimously that the state grand jury should investigate the matter. But the court's ruling was marred by its decision to keep all related proceedings under wraps.
The public should have a right to hear what transpires in the hearing preliminary to the case going to the grand jury. Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning will decide whether Attorney General Alan Wilson should serve as the prosecutor before the grand jury.
Indeed, that was the question initially before Judge Manning in May, and he opened the hearing to the public. The case went to the Supreme Court on another issue: Judge Manning's decision that the House Ethics Committee had jurisdiction.
Of course, grand jury proceedings are closed to the public, and there was no expectation of an exception in this case. But there was every expectation that the public would be allowed access to the hearing on Mr. Wilson's involvement.
Mr. Wilson is elected statewide to serve as the chief prosecutor of the state. If he is to be kept off the case the public should know why. That can't be done if the hearing is closed. Footnote No. 11 in last week's ruling states: "Due to the secrecy afforded state grand jury proceedings, future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter, should be held in camera," that is, behind closed doors.
And barring a revision of the footnote, or a change in the relevant law, that rule presumably will be effective for all "ancillary matters" related to future grand jury cases.
In this instance, Mr. Harrell says that the attorney general has a political motivation and shouldn't handle the case. His lawyers have recommended that one of the state's 16 local solicitors should get the job.
The public ought to be able to hear that argument, too.
The complaint against Mr. Harrell contends that he violated ethics rules by using campaign funds to defray the expense of operating his private aircraft. The complaint, filed by the S.C. Policy Council, also contends that Mr. Harrell used his office for personal gain.
Mr. Harrell says he has done nothing wrong, insisting that the complaint is the result of a personal and political vendetta.
There's been no secret about that complaint, or about the issues raised by the speaker regarding Mr. Wilson's involvement in the case.
During the June 24 hearing before the Supreme Court, however, Chief Justice Jean Toal was critical of Mr. Wilson for notifying the media about developments in the case, including that it was going to the grand jury.
But former attorney general Charles M. Condon says it has long been routine to make announcements about cases headed to the state grand jury to keep the public informed.
Mr. Condon says he thinks the court ought to revisit Footnote 11. There's no apparent reason, for example, to close the doors when the motion to recuse Mr. Wilson is heard, he said.
"There is a huge preference in our system for open courtrooms," he said.
Prior to the May hearing before Judge Manning, S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender cited the compelling interest in keeping apprised of Speaker Harrell's case "so that the public may have confidence that 'justice was done.' "
That was true then, and it's true now.
But if Footnote 11 is allowed to stand, there will be less confidence in the process.
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