South Carolina Court Orders Gov. Sanford to Let His People Go

Last Updated: June 08, 2009

Editorial, Marty Strange, Policy Director, Rural School and Community Trust  
The South Carolina Supreme Court has ordered Governor Mark Sanford to apply for federal stimulus money Sanford had insisted on not accepting because the federal government required it be used to help offset state budget cuts affecting schools and other public services. Sanford wanted to accept the money but use it to reduce the state’s debt. 
It was as if Governor Sanford held the people of his own state hostage to a crippling recession, and the court had to order him to let them go.
The court took the extremely rare step of issuing a writ of mandamus against the governor. A writ of mandamus is often called “the highest judicial writ known to law” and compels a public official to perform an act that is “ministerial” in nature, meaning it is a legally defined duty which he or she has no choice but to perform. The Governor says he will comply with the court order. 
A mandamus order against a governor is very rare because courts generally regard the highest elected official in the state as having virtually complete political discretion over every act they perform.
Not this time. The facts were compelling. 
Sanford had argued that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal stimulus legislation, gave him complete control over whether to accept the money or not. But the legislature exercised an option under a provision included in ARRA by Congress for just this occasion. If a governor refused to accept the stimulus money, Congress said the state legislature could adopt a concurrent resolution (both house and senate) accepting the funds. That’s what the South Carolina legislature did. Then it adopted a budget appropriating the federal funds to be used for the schools and other purposes the federal law allowed. When the governor vetoed the budget, the legislature overrode it. 
That put the Governor in a box he could not get out of except by refusing to apply to the federal government for the money South Carolina was entitled to. Under ARRA, it is the Governor’s duty to apply for the funds. Sanford said that left it up to him, not the legislature, whether to apply, and unless he could spend the money the way he wanted to – by applying it to the state’s debt – he said he would not ask for it. But the feds declined his request to use the funds for debt relief, and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators then sued asking the Supreme Court to force him to apply for the funds to be used as the legislature had directed.
A key in the five-member court’s unanimous opinion was the section of the federal law requiring that the Governor of a state desiring to receive stimulus funding “…shall submit an application.”   The Governor had argued that language gave him the exclusive authority to decide whether to apply for the funds. 
But the court noted that other provisions in the ARRA gave the legislature authority to accept the money if the Governor refused to, and that when the South Carolina legislature passed that joint resolution, they had officially made South Carolina a state that wanted the money, whether the Governor liked it or not. Once that was the case, the Governor had no choice but to submit an application to the feds. He was left with a ministerial duty to go get the money, no ifs, ands, or buts. 
At issue were the so-called State Budget Stabilization funds that are part of the ARRA. These funds are supposed to replace state funds cut from essential services, especially education, and are intended to save teaching and other jobs. In South Carolina’s case, about $700 million was at stake over two years. A little over half of that was to go to K-12 public schools. Other stimulus funding amounting to over $2 billion for South Carolina was not at issue. 
Governor Sanford, a Republican with a longstanding libertarian ideology, chairs the Republican Governors Association and is rumored to be lining up for a presidential bid in 2012. He thinks the federal stimulus money does not provide any benefit to South Carolina. He portrays this case as a defense of democracy and the separation of powers between branches of government, and complains that the legislature has too much power and the governor too little.
According to Sanford, this fiscal crisis should have sparked serious reform in what he says is an “antiquated horse-and-buggy form of government.” What he means when he says “reform” government is to “dismantle” it.
Make no mistake, South Carolina’s public school system can barely be called “horse-and-buggy.” You may recall Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the 14-year-old student whose letter to Congress exposed the deplorable conditions in her impoverished Dillon County school and appealed for federal stimulus funding. The letter won her a trip to Washington to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during the president’s address to congress where he quoted her proud words, “We are not quitters.” 
They are not quitters, but Ty’Sheoma and her school mates and their teachers are up against some daunting challenges. Working in buildings falling down around their heads, these people cope with miserable state funding, an issue before the same Supreme Court in the now-pending Abbeville case. Problems are statewide, but the conditions in rural South Carolina schools are especially appalling. There, nearly six in ten rural students live in poverty. Barely half South Carolina’s rural high school students graduate on time, the lowest rate in the nation. Graduation rate drops to less than 40% in the poorest rural communities.
It is a shame that federal funds to lighten the fiscal burden on these pathetically inadequate schools must pass through the fingers of such an ideologically parsimonious Governor. If Ty’Sheoma and her school mates are not quitters, Governor Sanford has quit on them. Or maybe he was never for them. 
He may wax eloquent about separation of powers and governor’s prerogatives and serious reforms, but his actions look a lot more like Southern Governors of old, standing in the school house door, denying some of the poorest people in America what they are entitled to under federal law.
The mandamus order, “the highest judicial writ known to law,” was called for, and fortunately the South Carolina Supreme Court saw its duty, and did it. Unlike Governor Sanford.
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