File video: York County Courthouse opens amid Confederate flag controversy
The main courtroom at the renovated York County Courthouse will re-open next month without the Confederate flag in it, the York County’s Clerk of Court now says. However, the decision could change after a legal opinion is received from the South Carolina Attorney General.
A request letter for a legal opinion from York County’s lawyer to the S.C. attorney general sent Thursday shows York County officials believe keeping the items out of the courtroom is legal. The items are not monuments or memorials but were placed there for decoration, the letter states, and do not meet the legal requirement of the S.C. Heritage Act that gives sole moving authority for monuments and memorials to the Legislature.
The decision by Clerk of Court David Hamilton is the latest part of an ongoing controversy over whether the Confederate flag belongs in a court of law -- and who has the power to decide to remove it. A growing number of people and groups have publicly said the Confederate flag is a divisive symbol of hate and racial subjugation that has no place in a courtroom where all are equal. But some heritage groups claim the Confederate flag is history, and they claim the law protects their history.
York County officials disagree, according to letter to the attorney general, and now they want the attorney general to weigh in.
Hamilton, who has legal authority over the courthouse, said the letter asks for a legal opinion on whether a version of the Confederate flag and other Confederate relics that were in the courtroom are covered under the state’s Heritage Act. The flag and other items had been in the courtroom since the 1970s, but were taken out years ago during renovations.
The mere presence of the flag and others at the courthouse does not make the items subject to the Heritage Act, the letter states.
In an official statement Friday from the York County Manager’s Office, the courtroom will open April 3.
The courtroom was part of $10 million renovation to the century old building. It has not been used for civil court trials since the building re-opened Jan. 30, while the rest of the building has been used for five weeks.
Hamilton said he will re-open the courtroom in April without any of the flags or other items at issue, because he is not going to do anything to the renovated courtroom’s walls that might need to repaired.
“This is the best solution while we are waiting for the attorney general’s opinion,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said if the attorney general’s opinion, which has no timetable for completion, is the items fall under the Heritage Act, he will comply and put the items back in the courtroom.
“We are getting the opinion to get guidance from the state’s top lawyers on what the law is,” Hamilton said. “I will follow that opinion.”
Hamilton announced in late January in The Herald that he was not putting the flag and other items back in the courtroom because it is a new era. He then changed his decision days later after he was told by several lawyers and others that not putting the items back could be violation of state law. People on both sides have protested, and some have threatened legal action.
Michael Johnson, York County Council member and private lawyer, said the courtroom taxpayers paid for should be used because it is ready.
“Whether the flag is up or not, the taxpayers paid $10 million to renovate the building and the courtroom and it should be used,” Johnson said. “My position comes from (the) point of the taxpayers who paid for that courtroom.”
Court officials have to summon jurors and others involved in court as much as a month in advance, which was the main reason for the courtroom remaining closed in February and March after the building opened in late January, Hamilton said. The county received a certificate of occupancy for the new building and courtroom only a few days before it opened.
Civil court during renovations has been held at the Moss Justice Center where criminal court is normally held. The Moss courtrooms have no Confederate flags. No other courts in York County have Confederate flags, including two smaller courtrooms in the same York County Courthouse that house the probate and master-in-equity courts.
At least one heritage group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans who are planning a state conference in Rock Hill in two weeks, have told both Hamilton and the attorney general’s office they want the flag and other items put back up. According to documents obtained by The Herald that were sent to the attorney general’s office Feb. 1, the Sons of Confederate Veterans asked the attorney general concerning the York courthouse flag to “issue the necessary directive to rectify this breach of South Carolina state law.”
State Solicitor General Robert Cook responded Feb. 6 to Leland Summers, state commander of the group, saying the office has no jurisdiction over the courthouse and no authority to direct the clerk to do anything, the documents show.
Although the attorney general has given opinions in other places such as Greenwood, where a lawsuit over a monument is pending over whether the Heritage Act is legal, those opinions have no binding legal authority over the clerk’s decision, according documents from the attorney general’s office.
The Attorney General’s Office is the legal group defending South Carolina in the lawsuit in Greenwood that claims the Heritage Act is illegal.
Opposition to the flag has grown in the month since The Herald exclusively reported Hamilton’s initial decision to not put the flag back up because he said while he respects history, 2017 is a new era. Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, has filed a bill that would make flying the Confederate flag illegal in any public building including the York County Courthouse. The NAACP is against the flag in the courtroom, and its leadership has publicly demanded the flag stay out.
Rock Hill lawyer Montrio Belton told The Herald the courtroom does not fall under the Heritage Act because the flag was put up as decoration and not by any county law or action. Belton has written Hamilton saying legal action likely will follow if the flag is put back. York County Public Defender Harry Dest and his chief deputy also have vowed to assist in the legal fight to keep the flag out of the courtroom.
The mayors of York and Rock Hill also have publicly said the flag should stay out of the courtroom. Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, in a letter to The Herald this week said the flag has no place in the courtroom, stating: “Yet we still have those who overlook the divisiveness of this negative symbol and that part of history, reflected by the flag, of a time that represented exclusion, separation and unacceptable treatment of a part of humanity. Hardly a statement for inclusion, acceptance, reconciliation and justice.”