COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former South Carolina House majority leader Jim Merrill submitted his resignation late Thursday ahead of a scheduled court appearance on corruption charges.
South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas’ office confirmed late Thursday that suspended State Rep. Jim Merrill of Charleston presented his resignation effective Friday. The development came hours after Solicitor David Pascoe announced plans for a Friday morning hearing in Columbia in the case against the veteran Charleston lawmaker. Pascoe didn’t give further details.
Merrill has been suspended from office since a grand jury indicted him in December on two counts of misconduct in office and 28 counts of ethics violations. He is accused of illegally profiting from his position.
Merrill has adamantly denied doing anything illegal. The 50-year-old Republican, first elected to the House in 2000, declined comment when contacted late Thursday by The Associated Press.
He is among three legislators suspended by Pascoe’s probe into potential Statehouse corruption.
Merrill’s attorney, Democratic Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, would not answer questions earlier Thursday when asked about Pascoe’s announcement about the court appearance Friday.
Merrill, a state political adviser to Donald Trump during the presidential primary, served as majority leader from 2004 to 2008. He easily won re-election last year with no opposition.
He is among three Republican legislators suspended by Pascoe’s probe. Sen. John Courson of Columbia was indicted in March. Rep. Rick Quinn of Lexington, majority leader from 1999 to 2004, was indicted in May. All have denied breaking the law.
The South Carolina Supreme Court declined last week to resolve questions over whether Gov. Henry McMaster can temporarily fill the seats of suspended legislators.
Two lawsuits filed earlier this year by constituents of Merrill and Courson argued the Republican governor not only can, but must, appoint temporary replacements.
But, without giving an explanation, the state’s high court declined to directly take the issue. The justices also denied requests to combine the two lawsuits.
Attorney James Davis said Thursday the justices may have decided it’s a political matter for voters to resolve. But voters may not get to weigh in on a House suspension until the 2018 elections. Senators aren’t up for re-election until 2020.
“I’m frustrated,” said Davis, who represents four of Merrill’s constituents. “This issue was clearly in the purview of the Supreme Court to give citizens of this state an opinion as to the governor’s authority to appoint representation. The issue strikes to the core of the most democratic of principles, the right of representation.”
John Crangle, an attorney and Crangle constituent, said he won’t attempt to try the case in the lower courts. By the time it winds its way up to the state Supreme Court, the issue will be moot, he said.
Crangle, a longtime director of government watchdog Common Cause, said he’ll push next year for the Legislature to change the law to specify that the governor should appoint replacements.
“Citizens need representation,” he said.
In May, Attorney General Alan Wilson agreed the justices should resolve the ambiguity. However, he concluded there’s nothing unconstitutional about a seat being unoccupied until a suspended legislator is either cleared or convicted.
“There is no true ‘vacancy,'” read Wilson’s filing. “This is akin to a legislator’s temporary absence and it is rational for the Legislature simply to let the legal system play out during that absence.”
The Statehouse probe began with the prosecution of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor ethics violations in 2014 and resigned from office.
After Harrell’s plea, state police released a heavily redacted investigative report.
Attorneys for Courson, a 72-year-old Marine first elected in 1984, argue Pascoe didn’t have the right to file charges against him. In a dismissal motion filed earlier this month, Courson contends that when Wilson appointed Pascoe to the case, it was only to prosecute people named in that report.
Wilson, a Republican, handed off the Harrell investigation to Pascoe in 2014, citing a conflict. But Wilson fired Pascoe last year, saying the Democratic chief prosecutor for Orangeburg, Calhoun and Dorchester counties lacked the authority to open a state grand jury to investigate the report’s blacked-out portions. The state Supreme Court disagreed last summer, giving Pascoe the go-ahead to continue.