UPDATE: The South Carolina Supreme Court has ordered Gov. Mark Sanford to apply for the disputed $700 million in federal stimulus money.
The court voted 5-0, with Justice Costa Pleicones concurring in a separate opinion, that the General Assembly had the authority in passing the state budget to order Sanford to apply for the money. Sanford contended that a federal law passed in February gave him the sole authority to apply for the money.
The justices also issued a rare writ of mandamus ordering Sanford to apply for the money.
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina Supreme Court justices Wednesday picked away at arguments made by Gov. Mark Sanford in his legal fight to reject $700 million in federal stimulus funds, mainly for schools.
Chief Justice Jean Toal said the case boiled down to a policy fight and that Sanford had already lost that fight when the Legislature overrode his veto and passed a budget law requiring the governor to use the funds.
The arguments came during a hearing on two lawsuits aimed at forcing the governor to take the federal money for schools and colleges during the next two years.
Sanford's lawyers said the lawsuits stood to make the governor into a robot programmed by the Legislature.
South Carolina agencies and programs stand to get about $2.8 billion from the $787 billion federal stimulus law during the next two years. Sanford says he alone has the final say on requesting $700 million of that and would only do that if the Legislature agreed to use it to offset state debt, a proposal that the White House has twice rejected.
Sanford, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is the nation's only governor waging a court fight to reject the money. The stimulus fight has raised his national profile and sparked talk of a 2012 GOP presidential bid.
On Monday, Sanford lost a bid to move the state lawsuits to federal court when a federal judge declined his motion. Sanford said then that he doubted he'd win in state court and would not appeal the Supreme Court's decision. One of his lawyers said Wednesday he'll obey what the court orders.
Toal said a decision could come by Friday.
"Really doesn't it boil down to a big policy disagreement between the governor and Legislature as to what this money should be used for," Toal said. She said Sanford lost that fight when the Legislature overrode his veto. "All he had to have was a third plus one of those present and voting in either house of the General Assembly to have his policy be effectuated. But he lost that battle. ... He lost a legitimately engaged-in battle under the constitution of this state and the rest is purely ministerial, is it not?"
But Sanford attorney Adam Charnes said the governor's role in requesting the money is more complicated than simply signing paperwork to request money. Toal said he's not required to do much different with the federal stimulus cash than he does routinely in other programs, such as the state's Medicaid operations.
Charnes said the Legislature was trying to force the governor to do things he disagrees with. It "is saying they have the authority here to compel the governor to assure the United States of America that the state of South Carolina will comply with basically every conceivable federal law and federal regulation that applies," he argued.
"Are you suggesting that the state of South Carolina does not have to comply with federal law?" Associate Justice Donald Beatty asked.
"Well, of course not, your honor," Charnes responded.
"Why does it matter?" Beatty asked.
Charnes said it mattered because it required the governor to comply with federal mandates. Toal said the state legislature routinely does that.
But the governor doesn't believe that the money is being used appropriately and it should instead be used to offset or reduce state debt, Charnes said.
Toal said that was the issue, not who was in control of the state's spending decisions.
While Charnes didn't dispute the Legislature normally has the power to make spending decisions, he said the $787 billion federal spending law left it up to the governor to decide when to request the money and how it should be spent.
Charnes said the state constitution makes him "the supreme executive authority in the state." But the lawsuits argue "the governor is nothing more than a robot and the General Assembly can come in and program the robot to do whatever the General Assembly wants." Charnes said if the constitutions means anything, it means he has discretion.
"It doesn't mean he's king," Beatty shot back.
Chapin High senior Casey Edwards, who brought one of the suits, had a front row seat with her parents in a court room packed with about 200 people and a crowd watching outside on video monitors.
"I'm just anxiously awaiting that opinion. Hopefully it will go in our favor," Edwards said. "The Legislature obviously has the power to override the veto and so hopefully our governor will acknowledge that and these funds will come to our state in a few months."
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