MAY 29, 2009 -- Gov. Mark Sanford may have finally picked the one fight that could take him to the brink of irrelevancy.
For months, Sanford has been railing against a $789 billion federal stimulus package meant to rally the nation’s economy, saying it was a long-term disaster with mild short-term benefits.
Sanford this month made good on his threats to reject some of the stimulus package dedicated to South Carolina. The state’s total portion was $8 billion, with roughly $3.5 billion in direct spending.
Sanford has delayed accepting $700 million, which was to be doled out over the next two years, largely for education and law enforcement, in $350 million increments
When the legislature voted to include $350 million of the stimulus package in the coming fiscal year’s budget, Sanford vetoed that portion of the budget.
When the legislature quickly overrode the veto, Sanford, who had crusaded against federal government intrusion into private and state matters, filed suit in federal court. His lawsuit asks the federal court to decide once and for all whether the governor or the legislature has control over the money.
Sanford’s lawsuit came on the heels of two other education-friendly lawsuits -- one filed by an association of school administrators and another by a pair of South Carolina students.
All three lawsuits will begin hearings in the next week in state court, where there is a move to combine at least two of the lawsuits in an attempt to settle the matter quickly.
The federal government apparently has a July 1 deadline on the remaining money, but the governor’s office has argued that deadline actually stretches into September.
Weakening the governor’s office
Regardless, observers say Sanford’s lawsuit has created the possibility of neutering him and his office, should he lose in state court and the ruling is not taken up by or his position affirmed by federal courts.
State Attorney General Henry McMaster, named as the lead defendant in Sanford’s case, filed a response brief and has made comments that the governor’s lawsuit could lead to a system in government in South Carolina where the legislature can brush aside the executive branch.
That the office of the governor in this state was weak wasn’t new information. In 1895, fearing a black plurality could lead to black governor, then-Gov. Ben Tillman lead the fight for a new state constitution that created the state’s current legislative branch-friendly model.
But if Sanford were to lose now, then, according to Winthrop political science professor Scott Huffmon, “it will affirm the ‘subordinate’ role of the governor in this state.”
Bowlful of irony
Huffmon found layers of irony in Sanford’s current situation.
Not only had the anti-government “crusader” turned quickly to the federal courts when he needed help, but that the candidate who came into office waving the banner of government change -- namely increasing the power of the governor -- was the office holder poised to cripple it.
“And the layers of irony go deeper than that,” said Huffmon, who added the lone bargaining chip Sanford held over the legislature, the stimulus money, was a gift from a Democratic president, Obama.
Ashley Woodiwiss, a political scientist at Erskine, saw a gloomy outlook political parallel. “
“Sanford's legacy will leave the governor's office even more reduced in power, much like a post-Watergate Presidency yielded for a while to congressional rule of government,” Woodiwiss said.
“It will take a major political figure with bipartisan levels of support, like first-term Reagan, to restore the governor's office. Whoever wins in 2010 could do it, but it will be a tough climb.”
Ironically, one of the men vying to replace Sanford after 2010,McMaster, has a central role in at least one of the lawsuits. His chief executive assistant, Trey Walker, said McMaster “will do what is right according to the state constitution, and any political consequences are secondary.”
That being said, Walker said his boss was still worried the lawsuits could lead to “one branch of government being able to side-step another, making that branch irrelevant.”
When asked why Sanford filed a state lawsuit in federal court, Walker said the law usually dictated the venue, and that the move was “unique and interesting.”
Not hypocritical to turn to feds, prof says
Erskine’s Woodiwiss said Sanford’s federal plea may seem hypocritical at first glance, but in fact it wasn’t. “Libertarians aren’t against government per se -- that's anarchists. They are for severely limited government,” said Woodiwiss. “But one of the accepted roles of government for them is the administration of justice. Thus it is appropriate to appeal to the state for the ‘redress of grievances.’”
Woodiwiss said there were two questions in play in Sanford’s lawsuit that dealt with issues of separation of power. One, can a state legislature force the governor to take the money, and two, can Congress interfere in the “sovereign” decision-making of states.
“So even an anti-government governor can and will appeal to government, in this case to enforce its own limits,” Woodiwiss concluded.
Wagging tongues in and around Columbia have said that Sanford’s move was a delay tactic, because he has heard that the S.C. Supreme Court is set to hand him a major defeat.
Sanford says federal issues at play
Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s spokesperson, disagreed, and defended where Sanford filed his suit. “We believe there are federal questions at play, and therefore federal court is the proper venue,” wrote Sawyer in an emailed response for comment.
When asked how far the governor was willing to continue this fight, possibly to the federal Supreme Court, Sawyer wrote that Sanford’s office was “taking it one step at a time.”
Earlier in the week, Sanford’s office turned some heads in a press release in which it announced the governor would not be responding to a fourth lawsuit, one filed by Democratic party-linked lawyers. In that release, it was stated that since Sanford “is not named as a defendant in that case, and as such is not bound by its outcome.”
Some wondered whether the governor understood what was being said in the press release, and if it meant he held himself above the law.
Sawyer offered this explanation: “If the governor isn't a named defendant, we didn't see how a court ruling could compel him to do something.” Sawyer pointed out the question was now moot, presumably because of attempts to condense the various lawsuits.
McMaster’s office said a decision, or a series of decisions, could come as soon as next week, as the judges and courts knew these lawsuits were coming and were already preparing to hear them.
Crystal ball: Today, Friday, a judge will begin hearing arguments in the education-friendly lawsuits. On Monday, a judge will decide whether Sanford’s lawsuit will be heard in state or federal court. But the question remains, how far will Sanford take this fight? Will he martyr himself and his political ideals? Or, like Barry Goldwater before him, would Sanford rather be “right” than president?