An “Army of One” was a short-lived National Guard recruiting slogan from a few years back. A recent SC Supreme Court decision might be entitled “A Quorum of One,” where it upheld a vote to override a veto by Governor Sanford when the vote in the Senate was 1-0.
In Board of Trustees of the School District of Fairfield County v. State of South Carolina, et al (Opinion No. 27035, August 29, 2011) the SC Supreme Court decided a case filed in its original jurisdiction to answer the question of whether a piece of legislation affecting the Fairfield County School District was constitutional. The Board of Trustees, challenging the legitimacy of the legislation argued (1) the General Assembly did not override the Governor’s veto of the statute in accordance with the voting provisions of the South Carolina Constitution and (2) the statute is impermissible special legislation.
The statute at issue would have stripped the power to administer the Fairfield County School District from the school board based on alleged financial mismanagement and would have placed it in the hands of a finance committee to be appointed by the Fairfield Legislative Delegation. The statute passed the General Assembly, but was vetoed by the governor. In response, the legislature took up a vote to override that veto. The House of Representatives voted to override the Governor’s veto by a vote of 33 to 10. At the time of the vote, a quorum (or majority) of the House was present. Specifically, 120 representatives were present for roll call, although only 43 representatives voted on the matter.
In the Senate, however, the body voted 1-0 to override the veto. On that day, although a quorum of the Senate was present, only Fairfield County Senator Creighton Coleman voted. The 1 to 0 vote was in accordance with a purported “long-held precedent in the Senate where members do not vote on legislation affecting solely one county, also known as local legislation.”
The school board filed a complaint against the State in circuit court challenging the constitutionality of the statute. The circuit court granted the Board a temporary restraining order. The General Assembly then moved to intervene, after which the Board and the State jointly petitioned the Supreme Court to take the case in its original jurisdiction, which it did.
The state’s constitution provides, regarding a vote to override a governor’s veto: “if after such reconsideration two-thirds of that house shall agree to pass it, it shall be sent, together with the objections, to the other house, by which it shall be reconsidered, and if approved by two-thirds of that house it shall have the same effect as if it had been signed by the Governor.”
After examining earlier precedent, the majority of the court concluded that two-thirds of a quorum was necessary to override a governor’s veto. The court recognized that recent practice in both houses of the legislature allowed some number less than two-thirds of a quorum to override, using the practice of counting those “present and voting,” rather than a quorum of the body, but the court concluded that practice was not consistent with the state’s constitution.
So, the court concluded that the constitution requires two-thirds of a quorum. Assuming full membership, the minimum quorum in the House of Representatives is 63 and the minimum quorum in the Senate is 24; two-thirds of those numbers would be 42 Representatives and 16 Senators, respectively. Here, a quorum was present in each house. The court held the veto override votes of 33 to 10 in the House of Representatives and 1 to 0 in the Senate fell short of the constitutionally mandated two-thirds requirement. Accordingly, the Governor’s veto was sustained. The court did not need to reach the special legislation challenge.
Chief Justice Toal dissented, saying that the majority failed to follow “our long-standing precedent requiring the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the membership present and acting upon the matter, so long as a quorum is present to conduct business.” She would have upheld the constitutionality of the legislation by affirming the veto override vote and by finding it permissible special legislation.