City Watch

Toal and Pleicones Should Not Shirk Responsibility

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I’ve known Jean Toal for more than 30 years. I don’t believe I’ve ever met Costa Pleicones. That established, I would say exactly the same thing to both of them: Do your job.

The idea that S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Toal and/or Associate Justice Pleicones would shirk their responsibility by recusing themselves from the historic case involving the state grand jury’s investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell is nonsense. There is no reason for either of them to do so; there is also no excuse for it.

The impetus for discussion of this nonsense came from an unlikely source: John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina. While I often agree with Crangle on positions he takes and fights he leads concerning ethics (or the lack thereof) in government in South Carolina, he did both himself and the S.C. Supreme Court a disservice when he floated the idea that Toal and Pleicones should step down from the Harrell case.

But since he put it out there, Crangle’s theory must be addressed: that Toal and Pleicones should recuse themselves because Harrell helped the former and hurt the latter in their recent legislative battle for the position of chief justice.

My comment on that is: So what? Yes, Harrell supported Toal and opposed Pleicones — just as he has supported or opposed every Supreme Court nominee since he has been a member of the House. That would include the three other justices who will hear Attorney General Alan Wilson’s appeal of Circuit Judge Casey Manning’s order that the grand jury investigation of Harrell be halted and the matter turned over to the House Ethics Committee.

Accordingly, if Toal and Pleicones must recuse themselves, then I suppose the entire court should do likewise. Of course, that means you’ll never have a decision in this case or any other, as the Legislature elects Supreme Court justices in South Carolina. If that is the standard for establishing conflict of interest, then every case that even remotely involves a legislator carries that potential for conflict of interest. After all, Bobby Harrell — and every other member of the Legislature — supports or opposes every Supreme Court nominee.

Still more ludicrous is the idea that Harrell controls Toal due to having rounded up the votes for her to fend off Pleicones and remain chief justice. Even if you believe that Toal and/or Harrell would be involved in such a distasteful (not to mention illegal) quid pro quo, the fact is once the election was held, Harrell lost any influence he would ever have over Toal. She is now in her final term, cannot run again and is therefore not beholden to Harrell or anyone else in the Legislature for her position as chief.

The bottom line is Jean Toal is now assured of finishing out her long career on the state’s top bench as its top official, and there is nothing Harrell or any other member of the Legislature can do about that.

For the record, I don’t think that matters anyway. I believe Toal will cast her vote on the merits and on the law, applying to the case the same powerful intellect that even her detractors acknowledge. To suggest that she will submerge that intellect and remove herself from perhaps the most significant case of her career due to having been elected to her position under the system provided by law in South Carolina is insulting.

But as insulting as the recusal suggestion is to Toal, it may be even more so to Pleicones. Are we to believe that because Harrell worked against him in the House vote for chief justice that Pleicones will therefore vote against the speaker in the attorney general’s appeal of Manning’s ruling?

To believe either of these things — that Toal is in Harrell’s pocket or that Pleicones is out to get him — is to cast the worst of aspersions on the two justices both personally and as members of the state’s highest court. I don’t buy it either way.

The legacies of Jean Toal and Costa Pleicones are on the line in this case. They cannot escape that responsibility. Which is as it should be. 

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