Attorney: Defending state's law could cost Charleston County taxpayers

Charleston County taxpayers could be on the hook for up to half the legal bills if South Carolina loses its defense of the state's new immigration law, an attorney for the sheriff and top prosecutor says.

Lawyer Sandy Senn is trying to get both local offices removed from any debt liability but has so far not received clear legal support from the state Attorney General's Office, she said.

The hurdle represents one of the many legal twists surrounding the U.S. Justice Department's challenge of the tougher set of immigration laws passed by the Legislature this year.

Part of the issue is geography. In this case, the American Civil Liberties Union started the legal fight by filing its complaint against the new law at the U.S. District Courthouse in Charleston. The suit named Charleston Sheriff Al Cannon and 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson as defendants.

Weeks later the U.S. Justice Department filed its complaint, also in Charleston, as did numerous pro-immigration groups opposed to South Carolina's move.

In court papers, Senn contends that because the solicitor and sheriff are also state agents, the state of South Carolina should be held responsible for plaintiffs' legal fees if a court finds South Carolina's law unconstitutional.

But standing in the way, Senn said, is the S.C. Attorney General's Office, which so far has not given consent to letting the sheriff and solicitor step down from participating or be labeled as "state actors" if they stay in the case.

John McIntosh, one of the top deputies for Attorney General Alan Wilson, said Friday multiple issues are at play but that any liability will likely be assessed by the presiding judge, if the state loses. The attorney general would look to the state Legislature to pick up the expenses if that occurs, McIntosh added.

Senn said the issue now is the lack of a guarantee. "That doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling as a Charleston County taxpayer," she said, "because I can't trust that the state Legislature will fund" any debt.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed its lawsuit against Gov. Nikki Haley in October seeking to halt enforcement of the law while their suit moves ahead. It is set to take effect Jan. 1.

The law, passed by the Legislature in June, expanded what many saw as one of the nation's toughest immigration packages. Police could ask someone about their immigration status after an arrest or traffic stop, but they couldn't hold anyone on the sole grounds of being suspected of being in the country illegally. A hearing on the case is set for Dec. 19.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

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