A ruling has been made in the lawsuit surrounding the election for Clarendon County coroner and whether the Democratic nominee can remain on the ballot based on her qualifications to be a coroner.
Third Judicial Circuit Court Judge R. Ferrell Cothran Jr. said in his ruling, which was electronically filed on Aug. 3 at 2:40 p.m., that LaNette Samuels-Cooper, who beat the plaintiff, Clarendon County Coroner Bucky Mock, in the June 12 primary to be the uncontested Democratic nominee for coroner in the Nov. 6 general election, is not qualified to be a coroner but that, because Mock did not protest the primary results, her name can be on the ballot in November.
“I’m happy with the ruling,” Mock said.
While it seems impossible after the ruling that Samuels-Cooper will be sworn in as coroner in Clarendon County because of her lack of experience as a death investigator, Cothran explained that, by law, she is a valid candidate — which has nothing to do with her being qualified for the position — because Mock did not exhaust all administration remedies to get her off the ballot.
"Defendant LaNette Samuels-Cooper's Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is granted in part; and Plaintiff is barred from contesting her qualifications as a candidate on the election ballot for the office of Coroner for Clarendon County," Cothran wrote in his conclusion for the Common Pleas court case. "Additionally, this court finds that Ms. Samuels-Cooper is currently not qualified for the office of coroner, and based on the testimony and evidence in the record, will be unable to become qualified for the office within the one-year time period specified by statute."
Mock was appointed as coroner by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Feb. 21 to fill the unexpired term of Hayes Samuels Jr., who died on Jan. 17. Mock had previously served as deputy coroner in Clarendon County for 21 years.
Samuels-Cooper, the sister of the late coroner, worked as an administrative assistant in the coroner's office for 13 years but was not employed by Clarendon County, according to testimony from July 27, the second day Cothran heard from witnesses. She was hired as a full-time county employee in the coroner's office on Jan. 24 and worked there until Mock terminated her on March 9.
Samuels-Cooper won the two-person June 12 primary by earning 57 percent of the 3,720 votes. No Republican ran in the primary, so the Democratic nominee will run unopposed in November.
Mock asked the judge through the lawsuit to declare Samuels-Cooper is not qualified to be the coroner of Clarendon County, her affidavit outlining her qualifications is deficient, she was improperly certified as having met the requirements to be a coroner and she was improperly certified as a qualified candidate. He also sought an injunctive relief barring her name from the ballot.
On the first day of testimony on June 20, Samuels-Cooper's attorneys, Ronnie Sabb and Kimberly Barr, filed a motion to dismiss the entire case against her under a rule claiming Mock needed to exhaust all administrative remedies by formally contesting the primary election within a certain timeframe, which he did not.
"Plaintiff never filed a protest to the June 12, 2018 Clarendon County Democratic primary, opting instead to file suit in this Court on June 14, 2018," Cothran wrote in his first judgement.
Cothran granted Samuels-Cooper's motion in part. He agreed Mock did not exhaust all administrative remedies, making claims Mock's lawyer, Robert E. Tyson Jr., made on the basis of Samuels-Cooper's filing affidavit being deficient irrelevant. This part of the ruling allowed the case to continue only based on whether Samuels-Cooper was qualified to be a coroner in South Carolina.
"... he may not challenge Ms. Samuels-Cooper's qualifications to be a candidate for coroner," Cothran ruled. "... Because the office of coroner has statutorily defined requirements, similarly to the office of sheriff, this court is not being asked to judge the outcome of a contested election. Instead, it is being asked to interpret the statute setting forth the qualifications for coroner, and to determine if Ms. Samuels-Cooper meets those qualifications, and it has the jurisdiction to do so."
Two days of testimony from Mock; Samuels-Cooper; South Carolina Coroner's Association President, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast; and Clarendon County Democratic Party Chairwoman Patricia Pringle led to Cothran's ruling that Samuels-Cooper "does not meet the statutory qualifications to be coroner."
"Ms. Samuels-Cooper testified that she believed she had fulfilled the one year of experience in death investigation because of her 13 years of employment as an administrative assistant ... ," he wrote in his ruling.
To be qualified to be a coroner in the state, candidates must meet one of a list of job experiences and mark at least one on a filing affidavit. Samuels-Cooper marked she had one year's experience in death investigation.
"She testified that she took phone calls reporting deaths, contacted and dispatched the coroner and/or deputy coroners to death scenes, scheduled autopsies, spoke with families of the deceased and helped to fill out death certificates. She also testified that she had attended one or two autopsies and was present at one death scene," Cothran wrote. "Ms. Samuels-Cooper undoubtedly has many hours over the past 13 years assisting the coroner and deputy coroners in the performance of their duties. However, our law states that the duties appertaining to death investigations, such as responding to death scenes, determining the cause and manner of death, and ordering autopsies to be performed, may be performed by coroners and deputy coroners (in addition to medical examiners and solicitors in certain circumstances), but not by administrative assistants.
"To say an administrative assistant in a coroner's office has sufficient death investigation experience to qualify to be a coroner would be similar to saying that a judge's administrative assistant is competent to take the bench because of his experience in the judge's chambers."
Cothran said there is also "no possibility" for her to become qualified because the only other way to become qualified is to "have completed a recognized forensic science degree or certification program or be enrolled in a recognized forensic science degree or certification program to be completed within one year of being elected." To even sign up to complete the program, which is a course and test, a person must have 640 hours of death investigation experience and be employed at a coroner's or medical examiner's office.
What comes next may still not be clear.
Samuels-Cooper can remove herself from the election and ballot. If she does, another election may have to be held to find a nominee.
If she does not drop out of the race willingly, the governor may not let her be sworn in because she is not qualified for the job. In that case, he would have to appoint someone to be coroner.
Mock said according to law, the election commission and state Democratic party must decide by Tuesday whether to take her off the ballot. If her name is removed, filing will open for another election for the position two weeks after. Filing would be open for one week, and an election would be held two weeks after filing closes.
“I will file. I will definitely file,” Mock said. “If someone files against me, we’ll have to have another election. If nobody files against me, then, basically, I’ll be put on the ballot.”
Messages left with the state and county Democratic parties were not returned as of press time.
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