A ruling by South Carolina’s highest court Wednesday makes the process of succession a bit clearer once Gov. Nikki Haley resigns her post to become United Nations ambassador, which could happen as soon as next week.
It also makes it increasingly likely that State Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, will become South Carolina’s next lieutenant governor, following a series of political moves that are expected to occur ahead of Haley’s resignation and current Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster replacing her as governor.
The state Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled South Carolina’s constitution was not properly amended in 2014, two years after voters approved changing the document so the lieutenant governor could be chosen by the governor. The 2012 referendum specifically told voters the change would take effect in 2018, but the effective date was not included when lawmakers formally ratified the amendment.
That omission was not noticed until November, when Haley announced she would leave office. A question soon arose about whether the altered constitution took effect immediately or in 2018. State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, had asked the court to clarify.
“Our ruling in this matter establishes the effective date of these amendments regardless of what is published in the Code of Laws,” the court wrote in its declaratory judgment. However, the court anticipated the state’s Legislative Council will include the 2018 date in future copies of the constitution.
On a practical level, the court’s ruling means the precedent of the Senate President pro tempore becoming the next lieutenant governor is still intact for at least another year. However, current President pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, has already indicated he does not want the largely-ceremonial lieutenant governor position. Because of this, legislators are crafting a plan where Leatherman would resign and allow Bryant to be elected pro tempore. The Anderson Republican would then automatically become lieutenant governor and fill out the rest of McMaster’s term. The Senate could then reelect Leatherman to his same position.
Bryant has indicated he would be willing to take on the job, if asked. But Leatherman may be nervous about even temporarily stepping away from the job. The Florence Republican actually won his current office under similar circumstances in 2014, when then-President John Courson, R-Richland, temporarily resigned to avoid becoming lieutenant governor then ousted in an unsuccessful election attempt for his old job.
Politics aside, Davis said the Supreme Court made the correct decision because voters approved the 2018 date. “The fact remains that we had a state constitution which bizarrely contained a provision in it that had never been approved by the people,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And something like that can’t be allowed to stand.”