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York Co. clerk reverses decision: SC act means Confederate flag must stay in courtroom

A version of the Confederate flag, which was to be removed from the main courtroom in the renovated York County Courthouse, will be displayed there after all.
A version of the Confederate flag, which was to be removed from the main courtroom in the renovated York County Courthouse, will be displayed there after all. Andrew Dys

A version of the Confederate flag, which was to be removed from the main courtroom in the renovated York County Courthouse, will be displayed there after all.

York County Clerk of Court David Hamilton said Friday removing the flag would violate South Carolina’s Heritage Act.

Hamilton’s decision to put the flag back in the courtroom reverses a decision he made days earlier, when he believed he had authority under state law as clerk and legal authority to move the flag and other Civil War items to another spot in the building.

Hamilton said he had met with two lawyers and others about the decision before announcing it in The Herald on Tuesday and did not believe it violated the state law, which requires legislative action by the S.C. General Assembly to change historical markers, monuments or buildings. The plan was to keep the items within the walls of the courthouse but not in the courtroom.

But Hamilton, a Republican who has been county clerk of court for 21 years, said after his decision was reported, he was contacted by state officials who did a more formal legal review. Hamilton said he was told that removing the items could violate the law. So the flag, and five other historical flags, pictures of Confederate generals and other items, will go back in the courtroom.

“The decision to change course and put the items back in the courtroom came after additional research, and is one hundred percent not my personal feelings one way or another,” Hamilton said late Friday. “This decision is to be in compliance with a more strict interpretation of the Heritage Act.”

In at least one case in the past, lawyers said, a black defendant objected to his case being heard in a courtroom with the flag and other Civil War items. Hamilton’s initial decision had been lauded by several area political leaders, lawyers and officials.

S.C. Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, had lauded Hamilton’s initial decision to take the flag out of the courtroom. King said Friday that next week in the General Assembly he will seek a formal legal opinion from state lawyers.

“Next week I plan to ask the House legal team to look at the issue and provide a legal interpretation,” King said.

York Mayor Eddie Lee, who has studied the Heritage Act as part of Winthrop University’s committee looking at how the Heritage Act affects the name of Tillman Hall, said his interpretation of the act showed a decision to take the flag out of the courtroom was a “clear violation” of the act.

Yet Lee, a Winthrop professor specializing in South Carolina history who has Confederate ancestors, said he understands and agrees with removing the flag from the courtroom to another place because “the year 2017 is not 1861.”

Hamilton said he will convene a “diverse” committee to look at how the items, which are currently in storage, will be displayed when the courtroom is used again in the coming weeks. No one has been named to that committee.

Hamilton said he respects both the Heritage Act and the history of York County.

“It was not my intention to offend the citizens of York County, the state of South Carolina, or of the United States of America, Hamilton said.

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