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Jones v. South Carolina Republican Party

Supreme Court of South Carolina

December 12, 2018

J. R. Jones, South Carolina Democratic Party, and McCormick County Democratic Party, Appellants,
South Carolina Republican Party, McCormick County Republican Party, and Clarke Anderson Stearns, Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2017-002583

          Submitted October 1, 2018

          Appeal from McCormick County R. Lawton McIntosh, Circuit Court Judge.

          James Emerson Smith Jr., James E. Smith Jr., PA, of Columbia; Tommy Lee Stanford, Stanford & Assoc., PC, of Greenwood; E. Charles Grose Jr., Grose Law Firm, of Greenwood; and William Hunter Alexander, Law Office of William H. Alexander, LLC, of Barnwell, for Appellants.

          Robert E. Tyson Jr. and Vordman Carlisle Traywick III, Robinson Gray Stepp & Laffitte, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent Clarke Anderson Stearns; Karl Smith Bowers Jr., Bowers Law Office, of Columbia, for Respondents South Carolina Republican Party and McCormick County Republican Party.

          FEW JUSTICE.

         We address two questions in this appeal. The first question is whether a challenge to an elected official's legal qualifications to serve in the office to which he has just been elected must be brought pursuant to the administrative provisions of Title 7 of the South Carolina Code, or whether such a challenge may be brought in circuit court. The second question is whether the "certified law enforcement officer" requirement to serve as sheriff-found in subsection 23-11-110(A)(5) of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2018)-requires the certification to come from South Carolina authorities, as opposed to authorities in another state. We find the plaintiffs in this case were permitted to bring the action in circuit court, but the necessary certification to serve as sheriff need not come from South Carolina authorities. We affirm the result of the circuit court's decision, which did not remove the elected McCormick County Sheriff from office.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         McCormick County voters elected Clarke Anderson Stearns as their Sheriff in the November 8, 2016, general election. After the election, Appellants brought this action in circuit court alleging "Stearns does not possess the necessary qualifications to be Sheriff of McCormick County." Specifically, Appellants claim "Stearns does not have three years experience as a certified law enforcement officer as defined by [subsection] 23-11-110(A)" of the South Carolina Code (2007 & Supp. 2018). Appellants asked the circuit court to grant "declaratory and injunctive relief declaring that Defendant Stearns does not meet [the] qualifications set forth in section 23-11-110." Based on that claim, Appellants "specifically request[ed]" the circuit court issue an order "enjoining the Defendant Stearns from serving as Sheriff of McCormick County."

         Before the circuit court action was filed, however, the losing candidate in the general election-J.R. Jones-filed a Title 7 election protest with the McCormick County Board of Canvassers. Jones filed the challenge on November 16, 2016. The county board held a hearing on November 21. By a vote of 3-to-3, the county board took no action on Jones's protest. Jones did not appeal the county board's decision.

         Jones filed this action in circuit court on December 7, 2016. He was joined as plaintiff by the South Carolina Democratic Party and the McCormick County Democratic Party, to all of whom we will refer collectively as "Appellants." Appellants initially filed a motion for a temporary injunction, asking the circuit court to enjoin "Stearns from taking the oath of office for Sheriff of McCormick County, assuming control of the office of Sheriff of McCormick County, and taking any official action as Sheriff of McCormick County." The Honorable William P. Keesley denied the motion for a temporary injunction by order filed January 20, 2017. Sheriff Stearns was sworn in and began serving on January 23, 2017.

         The Honorable R. Lawton McIntosh conducted a bench trial on October 18, 2017. The court denied relief, finding Appellants were required to pursue their challenge to Sheriff Stearns' qualifications through the administrative provisions of Title 7, and by appealing the county board's decision to the State Board of Canvassers. Appellants appealed the circuit court's decision directly to this Court pursuant to Rule 203(d)(1)(A)(iv) of the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules and subsection 14-8-200(b)(5) of the South Carolina Code (2017).

         II. Analysis

         We begin with the question of whether Sheriff Stearns meets the legal qualifications to serve. This discussion will lay the groundwork for addressing whether the law permitted Appellants to bring this action in circuit court.

         A. Qualifications to ...

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