- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to resolve questions over how the lieutenant governor’s office will be filled if Gov. Nikki Haley becomes ambassador to the United Nations.

The state’s high court accepted Sen. Tom Davis‘ request to take the case directly. Justices will hear arguments next Wednesday afternoon. That’s the same day Haley’s confirmation process as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for ambassador begins in the U.S. Senate and two days before Trump’s inauguration.

“What’s clear to me is they want this matter resolved before the inauguration, when the dominoes could start to fall in South Carolina,” said Davis, R-Beaufort. Justices are “determined not to leave us without a road map when the vacancy occurs.”

Davis asked the court last month to settle a disagreement over whether a constitutional amendment changing the lines of succession is in effect.

If it is, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster could pick his replacement, allowing Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman to easily keep his powerful leadership post. Leatherman has refused to become lieutenant governor.

Davis is among many who contend the constitution still calls on the Senate’s leader to fill the impending vacancy.

That’s because both a 2012 law asking citizens to vote on the amendment and the opening clause of the ballot question itself specified that succession changes would begin “with the general election of 2018.”

The disagreement is due to a law the Legislature passed in 2014 to ratify the voters’ approval of the amendment. That law changed the constitution to say candidates for governor and lieutenant governor would run on the same ticket beginning in 2018, but allowed the governor to immediately fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office.

Leatherman’s predecessor, Sen. John Courson, resigned from the leadership post in 2014, after which the Senate elected a new president pro tem, who was then immediately sworn in as lieutenant governor. Leatherman could do the same and then attempt to get re-elected as president pro tem - a move at least some senators will oppose.

Haley, a longtime critic of Leatherman who backed his challenger last year, said she admires the way former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell handled a similar situation in 2012, when then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned as part of a plea deal for violating ethics laws. McConnell reluctantly left the Senate and became lieutenant governor.

“I think when you take office, and you take responsibility, things are expected of you,” she told reporters Monday. McConnell “understood the constitution.”

“He knew what his duties were and he followed through with them.”

Last week, Leatherman and Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin asked the justices not to decide anything until McMaster is actually sworn in as governor, which is still not a given.

Their joint response characterized Davis‘ request as speculation relying on a series of assumptions: that Trump becomes president and that Haley is confirmed and resigns. It was similar to the response filed last month by House Speaker Jay Lucas and House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, but went further by asking the high court to throw out Davis‘ request entirely.

The House Republican leaders also asked the justices to remove them from the lawsuit should they take the case, saying neither has a “claim or direct interest in who will be elected to or potentially” become lieutenant governor. In their unanimous order Wednesday, the justices denied that request.

All sides have until 5 p.m. Friday to file any written arguments. Lucas and Leatherman declined to comment Wednesday.

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