Clarendon, state Democratic parties ask judge to reconsider ruling on Samuels-Cooper

Seeking clarification on whether to take her off ballot; election commission moving ahead with new election

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As Clarendon County voters and state election officials are looking ahead to a special election to find a new candidate for coroner after a judge's ruling disqualified the primary winner from taking office, two other involved parties are asking for clarification.

The Clarendon County Democratic Party and South Carolina Democratic Party filed a motion on Aug. 8 to reconsider and/or amend the order made by Third Judicial Circuit Judge R. Ferrell Cothran that LaNette Samuels-Cooper can be on the ballot in November but cannot become a coroner because she has not met the statutory requirements to be the county's top death investigator.

Samuels-Cooper beat Clarendon County Coroner Bucky Mock in a June 12 primary to earn the Democratic nomination. Mock, who was appointed coroner in February by Gov. Henry McMaster to fill the unexpired term of Hayes Samuels Jr., who died in January, filed a lawsuit two days later disputing Samuels-Cooper's self-claimed one year of experience in death investigation. Samuels-Cooper's defense is that her 13 years of working as an administrative assistant in the coroner's office gave her the experience necessary to be a coroner and that a five-day class she was signed up for would give her the necessary certification.

After two days of testimony in front of Cothran, he ruled on Aug. 3 that, based on law that states death investigations can only be conducted by coroners, deputy coroners and medical examiners, Samuels-Cooper is not qualified for the job. Cothran's ruling granted in part a dismissal requested by Samuels-Cooper's attorneys based on the fact that Mock did not "exhaust his administrative remedies" in formally challenging the election results but allowed the hearing to continue based on determining whether she was qualified.

"The grounds for this motion are that the trial court did not rule on the joint Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)," the motion reads, referencing the split ruling.

The ruling states she can be a candidate on the ballot, but she cannot become coroner.

"We need some clarification here," said Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "I think under the law I — the party — have no other option but to certify her ... he doesn't clarify whether to remove her."

Robertson said he takes issue with the ruling because of a previous case in Sumter where the party was sued for not certifying a candidate.

The Clarendon coroner's case is debating whether the defendant has experience at all and whether she could gain the certification within one year, which is required by a 2012 law for first-term coroners. There is one recognized certification program, and prospective coroners must be employed by a coroner's office or medical examiner's office — Mock fired Samuels-Cooper on March 9 after bringing her on as a full-time employee for the first time on Jan. 24, according to testimony and a Freedom of Information Act request response — and have 640 hours of death investigation experience to sign up.

Ronnie Sabb, Samuels-Cooper's attorney, used the argument during testimony that the law is unfair for citizens to become coroners and that it favors incumbents.

The 2012 law, Section 17-5-130 of the state Code of Laws, that established experience-based qualifications for coroner, has been challenged twice. Georgetown County Coroner Kenny Johnson asked the court in 2016 to remove two funeral home directors from the ballot, and Shawn Ragin, who won the primary in 2012 against Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock, was removed from the ballot. Ragin was also not allowed back on the ballot in 2016.

In those cases, the funeral home directors and Ragin did not have 640 hours of death investigation experience to be able to sign up for the certification program, led by American Board of Medicolegal Investigators, which has said it takes longer than a year to gain that much experience.

The South Carolina Election Commission has already taken steps to prepare for a special filing period that is scheduled to open at noon on Tuesday, Aug. 14, and officials say they are moving ahead as planned.

"At this point, there is a court order stating the candidate is not qualified, which triggers the special filing and potential primary for this office under S.C. Code 7-11-55," said Chris Whitmire, director of public information and training for the commission.

That code explains the process of holding another election if a "party nominee dies, becomes disqualified after his nomination or resigns his candidacy for a legitimate nonpolitical reason ... The vacancy must be filled in a special primary election ..."

If more than one person files between the Aug. 14 opening and noon Aug. 21 closing, a primary will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 4. If only one person files, that person will be placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

"Unless there is another court order instructing otherwise, the filing and potential primary process will continue as provided by law," Whitmire said.

Whitmire told The Sumter Item previously that if Samuels-Cooper does file again, she will not be placed on the ballot because there is a court order saying she is disqualified.

Mock, who served as deputy corner in Clarendon County for 21 years before being appointed coroner, has said he intends to file.

"What do I do if there is a new election, and she filed again?" Robertson said. "I don't believe this is over."