Editorial | All people, even politicians, must be equal under the law

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The (Hilton Head) Packet:

Every school child knows that America stands for liberty and justice for all.

Every South Carolinian should be guaranteed that justice is equal for all.

Yet House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has argued in state court that public corruption allegations against him should be weighed by a legislative committee he appoints, and is staffed by employees who work at his pleasure.

Harrell argues that the state attorney general and grand jury can pursue the allegations only if his cronies on the House Ethics Committee say they can.

State legislators should not get to play by special rules they write for themselves.

Legislators should not be shielded from the scrutiny of prosecutors and grand juries that oversee justice for all.

Although Harrell has not been charged with a crime, the State Law Enforcement Division investigated ethics complaints against him for a year. State Attorney General Alan Wilson declared it a criminal corruption matter and referred it to the State Grand Jury.

Harrell said Wilson is politically motivated. Earlier, Harrell sought a secret hearing to get Wilson removed from the case, claiming Wilson has a conflict of interest.

Harrell says the allegations against him are without merit. Yet he wants this to be decided on his own terms, by his own judge and jury.

That is not equal justice. It is not justice at all.

At question is whether Harrell used his campaign account for personal gain and his position to benefit his company.

It is preposterous to say that resolving a question of criminal activity by a legislator cannot be handled by the same system of justice that governs the common man.

Legislators do not deserve immunity from prosecution, which could happen under Harrell’s scheme.

The issue shows once again the great need for ethics reform in the state legislature. And it points to the missing ingredient: truly independent oversight, investigation and adjudication of ethics complaints against legislators.

Today, the fox is guarding the henhouse and legislators fight like gamecocks to keep it that way.

The path Harrell’s case is to take remains under consideration by Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who heard arguments more than a week ago.

But much more is at stake in his decision than what happens to one powerful House speaker.

At stake is the bedrock American principle of justice for all. Do the powerful get preferential treatment?

Three former state attorneys general – Travis Medlock, Charlie Condon and Henry McMaster – attended the hearing before Judge Manning.

They issued a statement that clearly defines what is at stake in this case for the people of South Carolina:

“Over the past thirty years, not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official.

“Such a restriction would undercut the core Constitutional authority of the Attorney General. And even more importantly, it would violate the fundamental basis of our system of government that all people should be treated equally under the law.”