South Carolina’s highest court ruled Wednesday that a special prosecutor assigned to investigate potential Statehouse corruption does have the power to convene the State Grand Jury.
The state Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that Attorney General Alan Wilson had fully recused himself from the investigation last year, meaning First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe had the power to convene the State Grand Jury without his approval. Wilson last year had sought a special prosecutor in the ongoing corruption investigation, citing a potential conflict of interest. While he did not give a specific reason at the time, other reports have linked his political advisors with some of the same legislators who were investigated in the case.
But Pascoe and the Attorney General’s Office clashed several times in the ensuing months, with the solicitor accusing Wilson of “interfering” in the investigation. Wilson eventually terminated Pascoe in March, arguing the solicitor “tainted” the case by trying to impanel the grand jury without his knowledge and because details of the investigation’s specifics were leaked to several media outlets.
Wilson had argued that, even though he had recused himself, state law gave the Attorney General alone the power to impanel the State Grand Jury. He insisted Pascoe should have sought his office’s approval first.
However the justices wrote that, while the State Grand Jury Act only refers to the Attorney General, they believe it’s clear legislators did not intend for that language to mean only the elected official with the title “Attorney General.”
“Were we to hold that only the elected office holder is authorized to initiate a state grand jury investigation, then even where the Attorney General himself became the subject of an investigation, only he could initiate a state grand jury proceeding in the case against him,” Chief Justice Costa Pleicones wrote. “We conclude such a holding would lead to an absurd result.”
The court ruled that because Pascoe was operating with the “authority of the Attorney General” when he sought the grand jury, the move was lawful. Wilson’s decision to remove him afterwards was therefore “ineffective,” the court wrote.
The Attorney General’s Office said it would not challenge the ruling. “We respect the court’s decision and will abide by it,” spokeswoman Hayley Thrift wrote in an email.
Pascoe released his own statement. “I am gratified by the S.C. Supreme Court’s decision today,” he wrote. “I’m currently in Virginia dealing with a family illness, but expect to return to South Carolina tomorrow to meet with (State Law Enforcement Division) Chief (Mark) Keel and his agents to resume work on this matter.”
Justices declined to rule on Pascoe’s request to order the State Grand Jury’s clerk Jim Parks swear in the special prosecutors, writing they were “confident” the parties involved would follow their ruling.
The lone dissenter in the ruling was Associate Justice John Few, who questioned whether Wilson actually had a conflict of interest in the case. “I would instruct the (judge who initially authorized the grand jury) to answer this key factual question—whether the Attorney General has an actual conflict of interest—after which the presiding judge may direct the proceedings accordingly,” Few wrote. “In all likelihood, the result would be the same.”