- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The state Supreme Court made it clear Wednesday that Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster can’t pick his successor if Gov. Nikki Haley is confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations.

Justices ruled that a constitutional amendment changing the lines of succession won’t take effect until the 2018 election. That means the state constitution still calls on the Senate’s leader to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office, requiring Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman to do some maneuvering to keep his powerful leadership post.

He refuses to become lieutenant governor.

Sen. Tom Davis had asked the justices to settle a discrepancy on when the change, approved by voters in 2012, took effect. Leatherman initially asked the justices to decide nothing unless McMaster is actually sworn in, calling Davis’ request speculation that relies on a series of assumptions.

Haley’s confirmation process began Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, two days before the inauguration of her new would-be boss, President-elect Donald Trump. McMaster would ascend to the governor’s office after Haley resigns.

“The Supreme Court is to be commended for acting both swiftly and correctly in this matter before the political dominoes start to fall,” said Davis, R-Beaufort.

Last week, the state’s high court accepted Davis’ request to take the case directly and set a hearing for Wednesday. But justices canceled it, calling it moot, after Leatherman filed a response essentially agreeing with Davis.

Questions arose from a 2014 law ratifying voters’ approval of the amendment.

Both the 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.”

But in ratifying that vote, legislators created staggered dates. The 2014 law changed the constitution to say candidates for governor and lieutenant governor would run on the same ticket starting in 2018, but it allowed the governor to immediately fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office.

In his filing Friday, Leatherman said allowing such staggered dates “would create a constitutional crisis.”

The 85-year-old Florence Republican had no comment Wednesday.

“In the end the right thing happened,” Davis said, as the constitution will conform to what voters approved.

Sen. Kevin Bryant of Anderson is expected to move into the lieutenant governor’s office. He is the only Republican in the GOP-controlled Senate who says he wants the job.

Leatherman is expected to resign from his leadership post long enough for another senator, likely Bryant, to be elected president pro tem. Bryant would then immediately be sworn in as lieutenant governor. Leatherman would then attempt to get re-elected as president pro tem - a move at least some senators will oppose.

Bryant, a 49-year-old pharmacist first elected in 2004, said he made the decision after praying about it and talking to constituents.

“It would be an honor to preside over the Senate,” he said, adding he’d also enjoy the job’s other duty of overseeing the state’s Office on Aging.

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