South Carolina requires candidates running to be county sheriffs or coroners meet certain criteria for educational degrees and experience.
However, several recent court cases have shown there is no one enforcing the requirements before a candidate gets on the ballot. Current law requires the candidate’s political party vet them, but the process often does not occur in rural counties or races not expected to be competitive.
Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled McCormick County Sheriff Clarke Stearns met the eligibility requirements for sheriff despite being certified in Virginia. The same court ruled two months earlier that a winning candidate for Clarendon County coroner was ineligible because her previous experience was only as an administrative assistant.
“We’ll at least have a debate about who ought to be the person who does the certifying,” State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said. “It shouldn’t have to go to court every time.”
Hutto filed a bill for this year’s session which would give county election boards the ability to rule a candidate ineligible or eligible before an election.
“Clearly the intention… was that people who run for those offices meet certain qualifications,” he said. “But we’ve got to have somebody that actually looks at their paperwork and says you are a certified law enforcement officer or you have the certain education requirements to be coroner.
State law requires any elected sheriff be a certified law enforcement officer with varying minimum education levels depending on their years of experience. The requirements for coroner also vary depending on education level, but mandate a candidate with a four-year degree have at least a year experience with death investigations if they are not a doctor, nurse with a degree or have a forensic science certification.
Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler, who heads the SC Coroners Association, said the group supports the change. “The South Carolina Coroner’s Association pushed for the initial qualifications bill and supports the certification of potential candidates before being placed on the ballot,” he said in an email.
South Carolina Sheriffs Association executive director Jarrod Bruder said his organization has not taken a position on the bill, but has concerns about whether the current qualifications are specific enough to still avoid controversy whether the parties or counties make the final decision.
“I think there is still some confusion around what is or is not a ‘certified law enforcement officer,’ Bruder said in an email. “Clearly, the Supreme Court feels the McCormick case clears up any confusion, but it still has us pretty confused. Ultimately, I think the sheriffs will be less concerned with who certifies candidates and are more concerned with ensuring candidates meet statutory requirements.”