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Politics: Coroners’ suits against challengers raise scrutiny of state law

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The state law that sets the qualifications for candidates for coroner could come up for review in the legislature next year following a series of lawsuits by incumbents claiming their opponents don’t comply. Among those who want to take another look at the law is the head of the S.C. Coroners Association.

“We will work to clean it up,” said Dennis Fowler, the Cherokee County coroner and president of the association. He was in Pawleys Island this week for the association’s annual meeting. “We’ll try to go back to the legislature.”

A Circuit Court judge this month granted a motion for injunctions against placing two candidates for Georgetown County coroner on the November ballot. Judge Ben Culbertson ruled in favor of Coroner Kenny Johnson, the Republican incumbent, in a suit against Russ Graham, an independent, and Ryan Pitts, a Democrat. He asked Johnson’s attorney to prepare a written order. It has not been filed.

State law sets seven educational and career criteria for coroners and requires candidates to submit an affidavit when they file to run that shows how they meet them. Graham and Pitts said they planned to enroll in a certification program and complete it within a year of election.

But the law specifies a “recognized” program and it creates a Coroners Training Advisory Committee to decide which programs are recognized. The committee, made up of five coroners, selected the program offered by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. The board certification is only open to people who work for a coroner or medical examiner and have at least 640 hours of death investigation experience. Graham and Pitts are funeral directors, so they aren’t eligible for certification.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the board used to hold its certification exam in conjunction with a course offered at St. Louis University. Graham enrolled in the class and argued that he met the standard of the state law. But the board has since separated from the university. It offers no classes.

“You have certain criteria that you have to meet before you can take their test,” said Sabrina Gast, the York County coroner and a director of the ABMDI. “It’s not a training program. You have to have the experience.”

It took an amendment to the state Constitution in 1994 to give the General Assembly the authority to require training for coroners. In 2010, Rep. James Smith, a Richland County Democrat, introduced a bill to increase the qualifications to include an associate degree and four years’ experience or a bachelor’s degree and two years’ experience. The legislature also established qualifications for sheriffs and the adjutant general. “It’s nothing new,” Smith said.

But the Senate amended Smith’s bill to include the “recognized” certification or forensic science degree programs. Sen. Shane Massey, an Edgefield County Republican, argued against the amendment. “My objection was that the coroner was an elected position. The voters ought to be allowed to judge the qualifications of the candidates,” he said.

Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the legislation. “Although we recognize the need to ensure candidates for public office are property qualified, ultimately we believe this bill will serve to mainly to protect incumbent coroners from being challenged by new candidates,” he wrote. The House and Senate overrode the veto. “It was almost a reflex to override anything he vetoed,” Smith said.

In 2012, Sen. Jake Knotts, a Lexington County Republican, filed a bill to let the coroners training committee decide which programs the state recognized. It picked the ADMBI program at St. Louis University. Johnson was head of the Coroners Association at the time. He did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

“I’m deeply concerned that what was originally established to ensure that candidates, given the importance of the work that’s performed, shouldn’t deny the opportunity for people to run,” Smith said. “What appears to be taking place is a process where otherwise qualified candidates are being denied an opportunity to pursue office and give people a choice.”

He believes he can find bipartisan support for changing the law. “I’m as concerned as they are,” Smith said. “Candidates should win at the ballot box, not the jury box.”

Four days after the 2012 bill became law the incumbent coroner in Sumter County filed suit against a fellow Democrat who had forced a primary runoff. The incumbent lost the runoff, but was restored to the November ballot after winning the suit.

Suits by incumbents challenging the qualifications of opponents have also been filed this year in Laurens County and Saluda County, which is part of Massey’s district. “It seems like what they were doing was an incumbent protection act,” he said of the 2010 law. “I think they succeeded in doing that.”

Fowler, who was elected in 2006, said that wasn’t the point of the law. “It doesn’t protect the incumbents, it protects the public,” he said. “There was once no qualification for sheriff, either. Anyone off the street could walk into the election commission and file for sheriff. If it were a popularity contest they might could win over someone with all the qualifications in the world.”

In picking the ABMDI program at St. Louis University “it wasn’t with the intent of keeping anybody out,” Fowler said. While he calls that program “training,” staff at ABMDI said taking the university’s continuing education course alone didn’t allow participants to apply for certification. That required proof of 640 hours of death investigation experience and employment with a coroner and medical examiner.

“Do I think there are holes in that legislation? Probably some things that have to be cleared up,” Fowler said. “They can’t blame the Coroners Association for that.”

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