Columbia, SC (WLTX) – Late Monday, Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning made a decision in the controversial case between house speaker Bobby Harrell and attorney general Alan Wilson.
The issue was a simple question: does the State Attorney General have the right to initiate a state grand jury investigation of the: speaker of the House, or does it fall back to the House ethics committee?
Judge Manning decided the latter, saying the state grand jury has no jurisdiction in this matter.
DOCUMENT: Read the Full Order by Judge Manning
Manning said in his ruling that the Attorney General failed to offer or present evidence or allegations that any ethics complaints were criminal in nature.
His ruling makes any actions taken by the state grand jury null and void.
Jay Bender- News 19's Legal Analyst agrees with the decision.
"Before a court can hear anything about a complaint in reference to a member of the General Assembly on the ethics act, there has to be a determination by the respective ethics committee; in this case there has to be a decision by the House Ethics Committee that there is possible criminal conduct and then the referral would go to the attorney general for possible prosecution."
Attorney General Alan says that this decision gives criminal immunity to a class of elected officials and puts them beyond the law.
"If a house member were to go buy a brick of cocaine with his campaign money, we could not prosecute them if it were not referred out of a house committee. If a house member went to Las Vegas and went to a bachelor party with their friends and were to reimburse themselves from their campaign and four years were to pass and no one were to catch it, we could never prosecute it because the house ethics committee can't even hear the case if it's outside of four years, so all you have to do is survive four years without getting caught and you can't be prosecuted by the state's chief prosecutor because your own peers would not be able to refer the case for prosecution, " said Wilson.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell released a statement saying, in part:
"The constitution and state statutes are clear on these issues. Rather than discussing the merits of the case, the Attorney General continues to play politics.
"This investigation has continued now for 15 months. I again call on the Attorney General to release the SLED report."
Bender says subject matter jurisdiction is important so the process doesn't get down the road only to find out the wrong group has been handling an investigation.
"Let's suppose there was a grand jury and an indictment and then a trial, and then on an appeal the Supreme Court says wait a minute the grand jury had no jurisdiction on the first instance because there had been no ethics committee finding of potential criminality. "
The ethics committee is made up of five Republican House members and five members from the Democratic Party; some have questioned if the committee is biased.
"This is one of those rare committees elected by the House so there is less likelihood of potential bias I think."
Ashley Landess, president of the policy council who went to the Attorney General about the complaint, said that this ruling deprives citizens of their advocates in the criminal justice system... She went on to say that judge Manning's ruling makes no sense to them.