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Former Columbia councilman fights Gov. McMaster's suspension in SC Supreme Court

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Moe Baddourah 2019

Former Columbia City Councilman Moe Baddourah at a candidate forum in 2019.

COLUMBIA — A former Columbia City Councilman should not have been suspended by the governor in 2017 after a domestic violence arrest, an attorney argued before the state's high court on Wednesday, questioning the severity of the allegation against the councilman and the governor's authority to take the action against him.

More than four years ago, then-Columbia City Councilman Moe Baddourah was arrested and charged with assaulting his then-wife in an incident in the parking lot of a local restaurant.

While that criminal case has long since been settled — and Baddourah is no longer on city council — the legal fallout stemming from the charge is still rattling around in the court system, courtesy of a lawsuit Baddourah filed in 2017 in a bid to be reinstated to council after being suspended by Gov. Henry McMaster. Arguments in the suit were heard Wednesday before the South Carolina Supreme Court.

And while the court's potential decision in the matter won't send Baddourah back to the council, it could establish precedent for similar cases in the future.

Baddourah sued McMaster in March 2017 after the governor suspended him when he was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of second-degree criminal domestic violence. That charge came from a June 2016 incident in the parking lot at the Rockaway Athletic Club restaurant on Rosewood Drive. Baddourah was accused of hitting his then-wife with a car door during an argument. 

At the time of the suspension, McMaster said in an executive order that he regarded the second-degree domestic violence charge as “a crime of moral turpitude,” the legal definition he needed to reach to suspend Baddourah. The councilman subsequently sued in an attempt to be reinstated.

The councilman remained suspended for a year and a half. In September 2018, he entered pre-trial intervention in the case and the charge was eventually dropped. He returned to council the following month but was defeated by Will Brennan in a 2019 election.

In Tuesday's presentation before the Supreme Court, Baddourah attorney Toby Ward offered a couple of arguments why Baddourah should not have been suspended.

First, the crime he was accused of didn't rise to the level of one of "moral turpitude," and second, as a member of Columbia City Council, Baddourah is technically a member of the legislative branch of government, and McMaster didn't have authority to suspend him.

In his order suspending Baddourah, McMaster said that state law notes moral turpitude “implies something immoral in itself” and that a crime of moral turpitude “involves an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the social duties which a man owes to his fellow man or society in general.”

Ward argued that there could be concerns of "political fly swatting" if the governor wields moral turpitude in a "vague and nebulous" way to suspend a council member. 

"We think that what we should do is not adopt the outlier approach, which would be that any offense of criminal domestic violence is a crime a moral turpitude," Ward said.

He said applying the moral turpitude for suspension of an elected official should be reserved for the "gravest offenses."

Chief Justice Donald Beatty pushed Ward as to whether criminal domestic violence could be considered a grave offense. The attorney conceded that it could be under certain circumstances, but that the governor should review the facts of an indictment before determining whether an official should be suspended.

"I'm saying that criminal domestic violence, alleged alone, should not be a crime of moral turpitude automatically, end of inquiry," Ward said.

Attorney Thomas Limehouse, representing McMaster, noted the governor reviewed the charge against Baddourah. The governor also relied on an opinion from the state Attorney General Alan Wilson's office in making his decision to suspend the councilman.

"He did look at the indictment," Limehouse said. "It was provided to the governor and also to the attorney general for the attorney general's review, confirming the governor's opinion. But I don't think this court needs to go down the path of a categorical versus modified categorical analysis in determining whether domestic violence second-degree is in all cases a crime involving moral turpitude. Here, as alleged in the indictment, it certainly was."

Among other things, the indictment in the Baddourah case accused him of "striking (his then-wife) with a car door, an act likely to result in moderate bodily injury."

Baddourah did not testify before the court on Wednesday. 

Ward also argued that Baddourah was a member of the legislative branch of government in South Carolina, and noted the governor doesn't have authority under the state constitution to suspend members of that branch. He claims that, under the state's Home Rule law, the General Assembly grants certain legislative powers to municipal governments.

Limehouse countered that the state constitution defines the legislative department of the state as having two distinct branches — the state House of Representatives and the state Senate. He pointed out that Baddourah was a city council member, and not a member of either of those two bodies.

The Supreme Court will issue a ruling at a later date.

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