Once again, the courts are being asked to settle what is essentially a dispute between Gov. Mark Sanford and the Legislature. This time, it's over the stated intention of the State Ethics Commission to turn over its preliminary investigative report of Mr. Sanford's travel and expenditures to the House, to use as part of an expected impeachment effort.
Unlike previous court-refereed disputes (the governor's illegal refusal to request federal stimulus funds, the Legislature's unconstitutional practice of loading up bills with unrelated amendments), it's not clear which side is right this time. Our Supreme Court is obviously much more capable than we of sorting that out.
But it is likewise unclear that this even needs to be sorted out by the court.
This is what is clear: The ethics review and impeachment are entirely different processes - with entirely different standards and requirements. Although there is a legal element involved, impeachment is a political process.
If the Ethics Commission finds a pattern of violations of the law in the way the governor spent campaign funds and used state, private and commercial aircraft, it's possible that a respectable argument could be made that he committed the crime of misconduct in office; that almost certainly would rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But if the commission simply finds a scattering of violations that usually are handled with a reprimand or fine, that is not in itself automatically grounds for impeachment.
At the same time, if the commission finds he did not violate the law, that does not automatically shut the door on impeachment; many legislators believe that the fact that he left the country without telling anyone is grounds for impeachment.
To read the complete editorial, visit The State (Columbia, S.C.).