The sheriff of McCormick County can hold onto his badge.
Clarke Stearns, the county’s top cop, meets the state’s minimum education and experience qualifications for the post despite having spent most of his career working out of state, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled in a unanimous Dec. 12 opinion.
The court also held that the circuit courts are the proper venue for settling such conflicts over an elected official’s legal qualifications.
Stearns, a Republican, was elected sheriff of McCormick County in 2016. His opponent, J.R. Jones, brought an action in McCormick County Circuit Court with the support of the South Carolina and McCormick County Democratic parties a few weeks later, claiming that Stearns didn’t qualify for office because he had not worked as a “certified law enforcement officer” in the state for at least three years prior to his election.
Circuit Court Judge William Keesley permitted Stearns to take office, and in October 2017, Circuit Court Judge R. Lawton McIntosh ruled that Jones was required to pursue his challenge administratively by taking his election protest to the State Board of Canvassers. By law, Jones was able to appeal that ruling directly to the Supreme Court.
Justice John Few, writing for the court, said that because Stearns has an associate’s degree and 31 years of experience working as a certified law enforcement officer in Virginia, he meets the standards laid out in Section 23-11-110(A)(5) of the South Carolina Code of Laws to serve as sheriff. While Jones argued that the term “certified law enforcement officer” requires an officer to be certified in South Carolina, Few said this reading was incorrect.
“We find Appellants’ argument unpersuasive,” Few said. “[S]ection 23-23-10—by its own terms—does not apply to sheriffs.” Furthermore, Few said, subsection 23-23-10(E), which defines the term “law enforcement officer,” does not mention certification nor does it require that a certified law enforcement officer should be certified in South Carolina.
I sued the sheriff
Few wrote that under the state’s constitution, the circuit court has the power to declare whether a person meets the legal qualifications to serve in an elected office, and so the circuit court erred in treating Jones’s case as an election matter and requiring him to pursue his challenge through administrative channels.
While McIntosh had held that section 7-17-30 of the Code of Laws gives the McCormick County Board of Canvassers exclusive authority on the matter and Jones had waived his right to bring suit when he did not appeal the county board’s decision to take no action on his election protest, Few said this was not exclusively an election question.
Because not all sheriffs are elected officials (some are appointed in the event of a vacancy), Few said that matters of qualification must be determined in circuit court. In this case, “the essence” of the lawsuit was that Stearns didn’t meet the qualifications necessary to serve as sheriff. Therefore, the election was not the only issue, and it wasn’t necessary for Jones to appeal the county board’s decision to the State Board of Canvassers.
James Smith Jr. of Columbia represented Jones in the case but declined to comment before first consulting with his client. E. Charles Grose Jr. of Grose Law Firm in Greenwood also represented Jones but did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
Robert Tyson of Robinson Gray Stepp & Laffitte in Columbia represented Stearns in the case.
He said that the court’s decision is a victory for his client, who had his credentials questioned despite winning the election by a wide margin. The result, he said, is that beyond making it easier for similarly situated sheriff candidates in the future, the ruling clears up the question of where and how to file a legal qualification claim.
“This provided some clarity,” he said. “The court worked through the process and said the other folks were entitled to challenge his qualifications, but at the end of the day, [Stearns] meets them. I’m glad the court affirmed that premise.”
The seven-page decision is Jones v. South Carolina Republican Party (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-107-18).
Follow Matt Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney