Trials delayed as SC lawyer-legislators receive ‘absolute protection’

Source: Live 5
Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 7:15 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 23, 2021 at 10:15 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - As a result of orders from the top judge in South Carolina, defendants who hire some lawmakers to serve as their defense attorneys could have their trials delayed indefinitely.

An Aug. 4 order from South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty granted some state senators and representatives who also work as attorneys “absolute protection from being called to a deposition, trial, or hearing in any court of this State or any administrative tribunal of this State.”

The order, which applies to lawyer-legislators who are involved in redistricting hearings or meetings relating to how American Rescue Plan funds will be spent in South Carolina, could remain in effect until these two processes are completed.

This came as a surprise to Colleton County mother Mindy Corbett. She learned about the absolute protection that lawyer-legislators are granted after she said a relative, a man named Michael Ramsey, sexually abused her daughter and later hired a lawyer-legislator to defend him against criminal charges.

Court records show Ramsey was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 2018. About a year later, Ramsey was charged with additional crimes, including first-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

“We trust in our justice system, we trust in the legal system,” Corbett said. “So, we do what’s right. We called the cops, we filed a report and the cops did their job.”

Ramsey has since bonded out of jail, but more than two years later, the case has yet to be scheduled for trial. Corbett said she believes that is because he hired a lawyer-legislator as his attorney.

Court records show State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews is indeed representing Ramsey.

“They tell us that due to the fact that he is represented by Margie Bright Matthews, they’re not going to be scheduling a trial at this time because she is covered under senate protection,” Corbett said.

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor’s Office Community Outreach Coordinator Erinn McGuire confirmed that the case “cannot be set for trial” because of Beatty’s Aug. 4 order.

The order in question is not the first impacting lawyer-legislators’ obligation to come to court for judicial proceedings. An order from 2017 allowed lawyer-legislators to avoid court from January to the end of July and during special sessions at other times during the year while previous orders were issued.

“For crime victims, those days in court tend to get pushed very far out when a lawyer-legislator is representing a defendant,” South Carolina Victim Assistance Network Legal Director Sarah Ford said, “Certainly lawyer-legislators have a right to make a living, but at the expense of grinding the wheels of justice to a halt, I don’t know that that’s fair for crime victims.”

It is unclear how often cases involving lawyer-legislators are delayed. South Carolina Judicial Branch spokesperson Ginny Jones said that the branch does “not track this information.”

“I think it’s something that happens in every circuit in every county in South Carolina,” Ford said.

Beatty’s orders do not mention any way to monitor how often lawyer-legislators use these protections and he did not respond to a request for an interview.

“[Lawyer-legislators] have an interest in moving their clients’ matters along as expeditiously as they can,” University of South Carolina law professor Rob Wilcox said. “A reality is that the job of being a legislator is a much more full time job than it used to be.”

Wilcox said that lawyer-legislators typically make far more money through their roles in the courtroom than in the State House.

Lawyers make up only a small percentage of South Carolina’s population, but dozens of state lawmakers from both parties are also attorneys.

For instance, State Sen. Dick Harpootlian from the Midlands is representing Alex Murdaugh, the Hampton County lawyer accused of insurance fraud and filing a false police report. In the Lowcountry, State Sen. Sandy Senn has done legal work for Charleston County and the City of North Charleston.

Legislative protection has not been a known issue for any of their cases, but anytime a state lawmaker has a separate job as an attorney, there is always a chance that the chief justice’s orders could impact the timing and scheduling of cases or the rate of how quickly cases are processed through the judicial system.

Still, Wilcox said having attorneys in the state legislature is vital.

“Lawyers bring a level of expertise and knowledge and analytical ability that I think is absolutely critical to have in the legislative process,” he said.

We requested interviews with numerous lawyer-legislators to ask how they handle both jobs.

“It is a challenge to balance but that’s what you have to do,” State Sen. Ronnie Sabb said. A Williamsburg County native, Sabb was one of the only lawyer-legislators who agreed to an interview.

Sabb said the chief justice’s orders are very important so legislators can attend to the responsibilities they are bound to by the Constitution, adding that he has three attorneys at his law firm who can cover for him in court while he is busy with state government matters in Columbia.

“It’s unfortunate that a lot of the criminal trials have to be delayed because of the scheduling of lawyer-legislators, and so I feel the frustration of those families and their desire to try the cases,” Sabb said. “I believe that does happen. I believe that lawyers use the protection, but they don’t abuse the protection.”

Sabb said he believes balance is where justice lies.

But for Corbett, as she and her daughter wait in Colleton County, justice lies in the courtroom.

“What I want is for [Bright Matthews] to have to recuse herself from this case, so that he can get an attorney that can actually go to trial, and we can go to trial and have this done,” Corbett said. ”And I mean, it’s never going to be done for my daughter. It’s never going to be finished and behind, but maybe she can at least feel like someone cares, because at this point, it’s like her life doesn’t matter.”

Live 5 tried numerous times to reach Bright Matthews for comment. Live 5 investigators emailed, visited her law office in Walterboro, and went to her senate office in Columbia. However,Bright Matthews has not yet responded to interview requests.

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