- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A South Carolina senator wants the state Supreme Court to rule on whether Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster could pick his replacement if Gov. Nikki Haley becomes President-elect Donald Trump’s U.N. ambassador.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, asked the state’s high court Monday to settle a discrepancy on whether a constitutional amendment changing the lines of succession is in effect. If it is, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman could easily keep his powerful leadership post, as the Senate’s leader would not be called on to fill the largely ceremonial position.

Regardless, Leatherman has refused to become lieutenant governor. His office had no immediate comment Monday.

Both a 2012 law that approved asking voters about the changes and the opening clause of the ballot question itself specified they were to begin “with the general election of 2018.” But a law the Legislature passed in 2014 to ratify voters’ approval created separate start dates for the various changes. While it changed the constitution to say candidates for governor and lieutenant governor will run on the same ticket beginning in 2018, it allowed a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office to immediately be filled by the governor.

Davis argues that disregards both the 2012 law and voters’ intentions.

“This goes to the very heart of constitutional governance,” Davis writes in asking the justices to directly take the case. “The people clearly intended” for the changes to take effect after the November 2018 election.

He wants the high court to rule quickly.

The lieutenant governor’s job will become open if the U.S. Senate confirms Trump’s selection of Haley for U.N. ambassador, since McMaster would ascend to the governor’s office. If McMaster can appoint his successor, Leatherman won’t have to do anything to remain South Carolina’s most powerful politician.

When former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard pleaded guilty to campaign violations in 2012, then-Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell reluctantly resigned his Charleston seat of 32 years to fulfill what he called his constitutional duties.

But others haven’t followed his example.

When McConnell resigned as lieutenant governor in 2014 to become president of the College of Charleston, Sen. John Courson resigned as pro tem to avoid succeeding McConnell. Senators then chose Democratic Sen. Yancey McGill to momentarily become pro tem - just long enough to take the oath as lieutenant governor. Leatherman was then elected pro tem, adding to the power he already had as chairman of the Senate’s budget-writing committee.

While the GOP-controlled Senate was willing to put a Democratic colleague in the No. 2 job for six months - knowing voters would soon elect McGill’s replacement - they won’t repeat that if Haley goes to New York with two years left in her tenure.

During last week’s post-election organizational session, senators re-elected Leatherman as their president pro tem, despite his refusal to become lieutenant governor. Leatherman declined then to opine about the constitutional questions involved, saying only, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

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