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The political caucuses in the South Carolina Statehouse are allowed to keep their records and meetings private. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A South Carolina judge decided earlier this month that the state's legislative caucuses — a handful of groups made up of lawmakers in the Statehouse — can operate behind closed doors, shielding their records and meetings from the public. 

Circuit Judge Robert Hood ruled the state's media organizations, including The Post and Courier, didn't have a right to obtain documents and information from the House Republican Caucus, which was tied into the recent grand jury investigation of Statehouse corruption. 

The decision erected another barrier for the state's Freedom of Information Act, which allows journalists and citizens to inspect documents and communications from public officials and organizations. 

And it could ensure the caucuses' operations remain in the dark, even as the groups fight to exert immense influence over legislative elections in the state. 

Here's some explanation of what the caucuses do and why the court decision might matter to average South Carolinians. 

What are the caucuses and how do they operate? 

A caucus is essentially a political organization made up of a segment of the Legislature.

There are Republican and Democratic caucuses in both the House and Senate. There are several caucuses for female legislators. And there is the Legislative Black Caucus, which represents African-American lawmakers in both bodies.

All of the groups help to organize legislative priorities for their members. They hold regular meetings during the legislative session. And they try to get their members reelected to the legislature or expand their numbers by supporting new candidates. 

To do so, they accept unlimited contributions from corporations and special interest groups to fund their operations and campaign spending. 

Last year, for instance, the groups pulled in substantial contributions from major law firms that have lobbyists in the Statehouse, including Nexsen Pruet, McGuireWoods and McNair. 

Other funding came from lobbying groups including the South Carolina Medical Association, South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, South Carolina Hospital Association and South Carolina Bankers Association. And they got even more from corporations like BMW, AT&T, Nucor, Boeing, Comcast, Michelin, Duke Energy, NextEra Energy, Palmetto Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina. 

What does the court decision mean for the state's open records laws? 

The lawsuit focused specifically on the House Republican Caucus. But the judge effectively ruled that none of the legislative caucuses are subject to the state law that requires public agencies and groups to open up their meetings and records to citizens. 

Jay Bender, the attorney representing the various media organizations that filed the lawsuit, pointed out that all of the caucuses operate from free office space provided by state government. And he argued that public benefit makes them subject to requests for information. 

But the judge, who is appointed by the Legislature, saw it differently. The groups, he said, don't "transform" into public entities because of the office suite and equipment that are gifted to them by state taxpayers. 

The judge's order rested on another court ruling last year that denied the public the right to request documents and information from local chambers of commerce, which get millions of dollars of state tax revenue to spend on tourism-related advertising. 

The Supreme Court decided that case, setting down a precedent that could flummox advocates for government transparency for decades to come.

But the court decision last week expands upon another general trend in South Carolina. State lawmakers aren't subject to South Carolina's open record laws like everyone else.

Many local and state officials have to comply with requests to turn over paperwork and email communications in South Carolina, but legislators remain exempt from those demands. 

Why did the media companies request the records? 

The request for records from the House Republican Caucus stemmed directly from the state corruption investigation that enveloped South Carolina politics in recent years. 

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Journalists in 2017 asked for documents that the Republican caucus handed over to investigators with the State Law Enforcement Division. The media outlets sought those records in order to shed more light onto an investigation that has since led to four former lawmakers pleading guilty and another being convicted during a trial.  

A report from the state grand jury that investigated those cases was published last year. It alleges that former Reps. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, and Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, both used their authority as House Majority Leader to direct caucus funding to their businesses. 

The setup effectively meant the former lawmakers were personally profiting from the contributions the caucus received from groups and corporations that lobby the Statehouse. 

The caucuses currently list the contributions and some expenditures from their accounts on the South Carolina Ethics Commission website. But it's unclear whether it provides enough detail to catch that type of setup if it were to happen again. 

How influential are the caucuses in elections? 

A legislative caucus can contribute up to $5,000 directly to each political candidate they support during an election, according to state law.

But they could have far greater influence if the Senate's Republican leaders get their way. 

The Senate Republican Caucus is fighting another lawsuit right now over whether they can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mail, radio spots and television commercials in order to boost a single candidate. 

They want to be able to operate like other shadowy groups that have dropped millions of dollars on advertising in order to sway state elections. Standing in their way, however, is Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia. 

Harpootlian filed the lawsuit against the caucus last year after Senate Republicans decided to spend more than $198,000 on political ads in an attempt to keep him out of the Statehouse. 

The lawyers for Harpootlian argue that hefty advertising bill was essentially a contribution to his Republican opponent in the election, violating the state's contribution limits. The Senate Republicans disagree. 

The argument continued Monday as caucus lawyers debated whether Harpootlian's case should be dismissed, especially since he won the special election. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.