Legislators Should Show Local Government More Respect
Recent actions by the SC House to create office space for newly elected Judge Maite Murphy have been called a “fiasco” by a Dorchester Senator, and “unfair”, “extortion” and “without due process” by members of Dorchester County Council. I add to that “abuse of position” and “unwarranted overkill”.
Last February Dorchester County Clerk of Court Cheryl Graham asked by letter that Dorchester County Council “expand” the Dorchester Courthouse to provide Judge Murphy “a chambers and office space” as required “under state law” using funds set aside previously for that purpose. Graham followed with a March 11 letter “to formally designate space” for Judge Murphy requiring $12,000 in alterations.
Council determined it was questionable whether Graham had the authority to require expansion of the courthouse versus merely to “assign” who would use space that already existed; only Council, not Graham, had the authority to appropriate money; there were no funds set aside for expansion of the courthouse; and state law required the county to provide “an office”, not “a chambers and office space”.
Graham “designated” for Judge Murphy a 1440 square feet office, about the size of an average Dorchester County house. This seemed excessive to some, especially since the Judge would not use the office much of the time as she would be traveling as an At Large Judge; for years visiting Judges have been given an office of only 386 sq ft; and the Probate Court would lose 517 sq ft, over 24%, of its space to make room for the Judge.
Probate Judge Mary Blunt was so concerned about the harm to citizens if the Probate Court lost that much space that she appeared before Council and got a law firm to represent her to fight Graham’s downsizing of the Probate Court.
Weighing these concerns, on May 20 Council voted to approve the $12,000 requested by Graham to implement Graham’s office space plan. On May 22 the County notified Graham of this appropriation and Graham thanked the County Administrator.
Finding Council’s scrutiny objectionable, somebody got Chief Justice Toal involved. On May 31 the Chief Justice issued, without prior notice to or an opportunity for Council to be heard, an Order prohibiting Council from deviating from the space plan presented by Graham; requiring that $12,000 be used to implement Graham’s plan; and telling the Clerk to notify Council if the $12,000 appears to be insufficient so Council “can consider making further appropriations.” On June 4 the County Attorney responded by letter telling the Chief Justice Council had never tried to interfere with Graham’s space designation and asked for the Chief Justice to meet with a representative of Council to correct incomplete or incorrect information. That request was denied.
Rep. Jenny Horne entered the fray to teach County Council a thing or two. Indignantly declaring that Council was “not going to play that game anymore”, she surprised Council by causing insertion of a proviso in the House budget on June 5 giving to Graham $30,000 of the funds allocated to Dorchester County from the Local Government Fund. The $30,000 proviso amount was 2.5 times the amount Council already had appropriated as agreed upon by Graham; gave Graham a “blank check” to use the money however she wished without any limitation; and took from Council monies it already had budgeted and which taxpayers unexpectedly would have to supply.
Rep. Chris Murphy, husband of Judge Murphy, recused himself from voting on the proviso, as he should. However, based on how the Legislature works, the House would not have passed that proviso affecting only Dorchester County if any Dorchester resident House member, including Rep. Murphy, had objected.
Rep. Horne tried to justify this intrusion on Council by telling the Summerville Journal Scene “If county council doesn’t want to obey the law, we as the delegation will make sure the court system continues to operate” and “The lack of a space for Murphy affects the administration of justice.”
These claims by Rep. Horne are invalid and rhetoric to get Council to stop asking questions in fulfillment of its duties. There was no need for this proviso. County Council was not violating the law. Council already had approved on May 20 the $12,000 expenditure that Graham had requested, and the Chief Justice’s Order merely repeated the $12,000 amount Council already had voted to appropriate. There never was any risk that the court would not operate properly or of interference with the administration of justice. There never was any question about whether Judge Murphy would get an office. There were only questions of size, costs and the effect of taking so much space from the Probate Court. Council did its duty by scrutinizing those issues.
Legislators in Columbia should help, represent, work with and show respect for local elected officials instead of dictating to them with unnecessary surprise legislative overkill.
Michael T. Rose
Mike Rose is a Summerville Attorney and former State Senator Representing Dorchester, Berkeley and Charleston Counties