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Could what happened in W.Va. happen in S.C.?

Byline: Matt Chaney

In mid-August, law professionals throughout the country were shocked to learn of the impeachment and resignation of what was left of West Virginia's Supreme Court.

To date, two of the justices have resigned while the other three were impeached by the state's legislature for allegations of abusing public resources and failing to properly administer the courts.

As a result of the turmoil, the court has been forced to delay scheduled court cases until interim justices can be vetted to take their place.

The justices are accused of spending hundreds of thousands in state funds to renovate and furnish their offices. Most notable among the purchases was a $7,500 wooden map of West Virginia, a $32,000 couch, a $42,000 computer and desk and $363,000 in renovations to a single office.

While not all of the charges have been proven, it prompts an obvious question: Could what happened in West Virginia happen in South Carolina? And if not, what are the protections in place to prevent such abuses of power from occurring?

According to South Carolina Supreme Court Justice John Few and Ginny Jones, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Court Administration, there are multiple checks and balances in place in the state to prevent such financial abuse.

The furniture is old there

For starters, one major difference between South Carolina and West Virginia is that the justices in West Virginia had individual authority to use state funds. According to Few, this is not the case in South Carolina.

"I have to spend my own money if I'm traveling," Few said. "If I do seek reimbursement, there are clearly set-out guidelines for what I can and can't get repaid."

According to Jones, in order for judges or justices to get funding for anything, they must first go through the South Carolina Judicial Department.

"The South Carolina Judicial Department has centralized budget [spending] control and proper approvals must be obtained before purchases are made," Jones said.

As to the sort furniture and office spending at the heart of the West Virginia scandal, Few said there are also very specific instructions on what judges are allowed.

"Everyone knows what a new judge gets when they move in and it's nothing extravagant," he said.

Jones went into more detail, saying that justices must choose furniture from a pre-approved list. She said that any variations from the list must get approval from Chief Justice Donald Beatty, but that more often, justices make do with "furniture that has been with the department for decades." Furthermore, those who want to update their offices with newer furnishings have done so at their own expense.

"Others have chosen to have their upholstered furniture reupholstered with inexpensive fabrics by Prison Industries, a business unit of the Department of Corrections," she said.

All my auditors gather round her

Beyond the issue of access to funds, Jones said there are two different types of auditing processes that look into and hold the judiciary accountable for its spending.

One is an agreed-upon procedure audit conducted annually by the State Auditor's Office and the other is a procurement audit, which is performed periodically by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, a board which is made up of the governor, state treasurer, comptroller general, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

In a state which prides itself on fiscal responsibility, such audits provide another avenue for a balance of powers and financial oversight.

Few and Jones agreed that the accountability standards in South Carolina make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for justices to overspend the way others are accused of doing in West Virginia.

"There is no way that could happen in South Carolina," Few said.

Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney

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Title Annotation:impeachment or resignation of Supreme Court justices
Author:Chaney, Matt
Publication:South Carolina Lawyers Weekly
Date:Aug 28, 2018
Words:640
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