COLUMBIA — The S.C. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Gov. Henry McMaster acted legally in his recess appointment of former Attorney General Charlie Condon as interim chairman of Santee Cooper, ending a prolonged fight between the governor and the state Senate.
The five justices confirmed Wednesday that McMaster had the authority to position Condon at the head of the state-owned utility, which has come under fire for its role in the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project.
"We hold Governor McMaster's appointment of Condon during the 2018 recess was valid," the justices wrote in their opinion.
The Senate had failed to vote on Condon's appointment as the permanent chairman during the legislative session earlier this year. As a result, McMaster chose to unilaterally appoint Condon as a temporary board member in July.
The Senate, led by President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, pushed back. They argued McMaster didn't have the ability to appoint Condon as a chairman since the governor failed to pick him as the temporary leader before the legislative session began.
The political and legal spat between the governor and Senate caused Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty to criticize both sides earlier this month.
“The answer to this problem is you need to play better together,” Beatty said during oral arguments. “Both sides know exactly what they’re doing.”
The governor's office has criticized the Senate for sitting on Condon's appointment throughout the legislative session.
The Supreme Court made clear it was not responsible for determining why the Senate never got around to holding a vote.
"In reaching the conclusions set forth in this opinion, we have not concerned ourselves with the reasons why a branch of government, whether it be the legislative or the executive, chooses to act or not act in any given circumstance," the justices wrote. "Such considerations are inherently political in nature and we have no designs upon intruding into those areas."
The constitutional fight over Condon came at a time when Santee Cooper is under increasing political and financial pressure. The public utility owns just under half the debt — more than $4 billion in bonds — for the two unfinished reactors at V.C. Summer nuclear station north of Columbia.
That failure has prompted the governor to call for a sale of the state-run utility, which has existed in South Carolina since the 1930s and helped electrify large swaths of the state during the 20th century.
McMaster is currently sitting on a new legislative committee that is tasked with plotting a path forward for the state-run utility and the 179,000 electric ratepayers it serves directly and the more than 788,000 customers it powers through the state's electric cooperatives.
The governor praised Condon's role to come.
“Charlie Condon will be a tremendous asset at Santee Cooper and I know he will lead with the transparency and accountability that the people of South Carolina deserve from their public servants," McMaster said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
"It is critical that we have a steady hand at the helm while we determine the best path forward for Santee Cooper and its customers, and the Supreme Court’s ruling ensures that we will have just that,” the statement added.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he believes the disagreement over McMaster's appointment should not have reached the high court. He said it was a failure by the governor's office and the Senate to not communicate with each other.
“From a more practical perspective, it never should have gotten to this point,” he said.
The Senate will abide by the ruling. But Massey believes the state law on interim appointments by the governor needs to be clarified to ensure this doesn't happen again.
“It’s a different interpretation than what people believed the law to be,” he said. “There will be some type of legislative response to fix that provision, I suspect."