Update: A state judge has scheduled an open hearing for 10:30 am Friday to address issues between SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Alan Wilson, the Charleston Post and Courier is reporting:
The move came as the Post and Courier, along with other members of the S.C. Press Association, filed a legal motion this morning seeking to ensure that any hearing on Harrell’s request to have Wilson removed as prosecutor in his grand jury investigation be held in public.
It was not immediately clear if the hearing would address only the media access request, or include a full review of the issues surrounding Harrell and Wilson.
Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, called the development a good sign, but said he’s bothered by the ambiguity about what tomorrow’s hearing will actually entail.
“This shouldn’t even be debated whether we’re going to have a secret hearing or not,” he told CJR. “It should be a given—the whole thing.”
Press association attorney Jay Bender “has written a great brief [arguing that the proceedings on Wilson’s role should be public] and we’re ready to argue,” Rogers said.
Common Cause of South Carolina director John Crangle says he’s putting together a joint news conference after tomorrow’s meeting with the limited-government South Carolina Policy Council and other civic groups.
“W’re trying to put as much media attention on the matter as we can, which in turn puts pressure on Judge Hood to do the right thing,” Crangle told CJR.
Update 2, 2:24 pm March 20: The State’s John Monk, who first broke the news of the requested secret hearing, has a fuller write-up of the news about Friday’s hearing and the history of the case here.
Update 3, 2:15 pm March 21: The proceedings on Harrell’s request to have Wilson removed will be public after all, a judge ruled before a packed courtroom in Columbia this morning. The Post and Courier has an account of today’s hearing here; a ruling is expected next week.
Original story below published at 11:45 am March 19. The headline of this post has been changed.
CHARLESTON, SC — An investigation of one of the most powerful politicians in this state has turned into a key test of how open the courts here are, with media organizations arguing in print and—they hope—in the courtroom that key legal decisions shouldn’t be made behind closed doors.
For more than a year, the state’s Republican House Speaker, Bobby Harrell, has been under investigation for possible misuse of campaign funds and abuse of his public office, though Harrell maintains he has done nothing wrong. In January, South Carolina’s Republican Attorney General, Alan Wilson, sent the case to a state grand jury. Wilson’s office would prosecute the case should it end up at trial, and the situation has been prickly for the two Republicans, with Harrell accusing Wilson of trying to damage him politically.
The political intrigue blew up into an open-government concern a week ago, when John Monk of The State newspaper in Columbia, citing unnamed sources, reported that Harrell’s attorneys were secretly seeking a closed-door hearing before a state judge to argue that Wilson should be removed as the prosecutor. The substantive argument for disqualifying Wilson was unclear, Monk reported.
That might be a case of lawyers advocating as best they can for a client. But Monk’s report included this doozy of a line, summing up the extraordinary nature of the situation:
A secret decision by a lone judge in a hearing closed to the public that resulted in disqualifying South Carolina’s top elected prosecutor from prosecuting a high-profile case against one of the state’s most powerful politicians would be unprecedented.
The judge in question, Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Hood of Columbia, hasn’t commented publicly. Harrell’s attorneys have declined comment on the hearing request, saying that the grand jury process is secret by law. The attorney general’s office has said only that it is “strongly opposing both the request for a closed hearing and any disqualification of the attorney general.”
In other words, none of the parties involved have denied that such a request for a closed-door hearing exists or acknowledged whether a hearing has been scheduled. The Charleston Post and Courier reported Monday that a hearing is “expected to take place later this week in Columbia,” but the “time and place of the proceeding has not been formally released by court officials.”
In an interview with CJR on Wednesday, Monk said he understood a hearing had actually been scheduled for last week but was called off. “Now, a new hearing date has either been set that we don’t know about or is in the process of being set that we don’t know about,” he says.