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Handling the Oaths of Office Correctly

Elections arrive for many municipalities in November, and both newly elected officials and reelected officials need to handle their oaths of office so they can get to work. Here are several key points to consider during this process. 

The effective date of office
A common question after an election concerns the exact moment that an elected official’s term of office begins. State law does not name an exact moment. Determining the effective date, therefore, falls to the municipality, so cities and towns should enact an ordinance to clarify the date on which the term begins.

Who should take the oath?
The South Carolina Constitution requires all municipal officers to take an oath of office. This is not limited to just elected officials — nonelected officials in public offices need to take the oath as well. Court cases and opinions from the South Carolina Attorney General’s office consider a “public office” to exist if the position

  • is created by statute or ordinance;
  • has duties that involve the exercise of the state’s sovereign power, including the exercise of discretionary powers; and
  • has duties that are ongoing and continuing. 
Oath for all officers
Article VI, Section 5 of the South Carolina Constitution specifies the exact wording of the oath required of all officers:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I am duly qualified, according to the constitution of this state, to exercise the duties of the office to which I have been elected (appointed), and that I will, to the best of my ability, discharge the duties thereof, and preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of this state and of the United States. So help me God.”

Additional oath for elected mayors and councilmembers
This second oath comes from SC Code Section 5-15-150:

“As mayor (councilmember) of the municipality of _____________, I will equally, fairly, and impartially, to the best of my ability and skill, exercise the trust reposed in me, and I will use my best endeavors to preserve the peace and carry into effect according to law the purposes for which I have been elected. So help me God.”

Administering the oaths
Language in the state constitution and state law mentions that officers “take and subscribe” the oaths. “Subscribing” in this context refers to signing a printed copy. 

The Municipal Association recommends that a judge or notary public read the oaths in the presence of the official. The official should verbally acknowledge acceptance of the oaths and sign and date a written copy of them. 

The municipality should have the signed oaths notarized and filed as a permanent record. It should also ensure the signed oaths are retained for at least two years, according to the SC General Records Retention Schedules for Municipal Records. The Municipal Association recommends keeping documentation for at least the length of each official’s current term. Documentation can help to prevent legal challenges to the actions of a governing body.

Requiring an official to publicly repeat the oaths, or conducting a swearing-in at a public meeting or a ceremony, may be part of an optional practice. It is not required, unless directed by local ordinance or rules of procedure.

Newly elected officials and board or commission members should take the required oath or oaths before performing any official duties. Other municipal officers should take the oath on or before their first day of employment.

Neither the state constitution nor state law specifies a method for taking the oath, such as placing a hand over a religious text or raising one hand.

Learn more in the Municipal Association’s Handbook for Municipal Officials in South Carolina.