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SC governor wins court fight in Santee Cooper leader dispute

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has the authority to temporarily appoint a new chairman of the board for a state-owned utility without the Legislature’s permission whenever lawmakers aren’t in session, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

McMaster and the state Senate clashed over the governor’s pick of Attorney General Charlie Condon to be chairman of Santee Cooper in March.

Senators didn’t vote on the appointment before leaving Columbia in June — some felt it was an intentional snub — so McMaster used his recess appointment power to seat Condon directly on the board in July.

Senators argued to the justices that the chairman position came open in December 2017 so McMaster’s power to appoint without Senate approval ended days later when lawmakers came back in January.

But in Tuesday’s ruling , the justices said McMaster’s power is valid any time there is an opening. The only check is if the Senate rejects the governor’s appointment when they return to session, he can’t appoint the same person again after they adjourn.

The justices also suggested the Senate had no legal basis to sue the governor in this case at all. Republican Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman of Florence did not get the approval of the entire Senate before filing the suit, but the justices said they could not consider that matter because McMaster’s lawyers did not bring it up.

The ruling was unanimous and signed by all the justices.

McMaster wants to sell Santee Cooper because the state-owned utility is about $8 billion in debt. About half the money went to design and early construction work on a pair of nuclear reactors which never produced power. Santee Cooper was the minority partner in the deal with privately owned SCANA Corp. and its subsidiary South Carolina Electric & Gas.

A committee of senators and House members are currently seeking bids for the state utility. Santee Cooper can’t be sold without the General Assembly’s approval.

Condon will lead with transparency and accountability during a critical time for Santee Cooper, McMaster said in a statement after the ruling.

“It is critical that we have a steady hand at the helm while we determine the best path forward for Santee Cooper and its customers, and the Supreme Court’s ruling ensures that we will have just that,” the governor said.

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