Lawyer, legislator. Sheheen was born on January 21, 1943, in Camden, one of four sons of Austin M. Sheheen and Lucile Roukos. Sheheen graduated from Camden High School in 1961, received a B.A. degree from Duke University in 1965, and earned a J.D. from the University of South Carolina Law School in 1968. He was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1968 and was first elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives from Kershaw County in 1976. During his early career in the House, he served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee (1981–1986) and championed causes including freedom-of-information legislation, the strengthening of local government powers, and the periodic review of state agency regulatory functions popularly known as “sunset” laws.
Sheheen was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1986. Four years later he presided over the South Carolina House during one of the state’s major political scandals, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sting operation called “Operation Lost Trust.” Speaker Sheheen led efforts to restore public trust by enacting strong ethics legislation. In 1991 the General Assembly adopted the Ethics Reform Act, which included a $25 limit on lobbyists’ spending on legislators, dubbed the “cup of coffee” provision. Other parts of the bill banned campaign donations by lobbyists, enlarged the State Ethics Commission, and expanded that commission’s authority.
Sheheen also worked to close the facility for the storage of low-level radioactive waste materials at Barnwell. Sheheen and his environmentally oriented colleagues fought to have the Barnwell facility closed on schedule, and a compromise reached on the final day of the 1992–1993 session gave the Barnwell facility an additional four years of operation, but with significant restrictions and limitations.
As Speaker, Sheheen devoted much of his time to organizational and procedural issues at a time when South Carolina’s two-party system was growing increasingly partisan and competitive. Sheheen’s eight years as Speaker ended in 1994 when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in the twentieth century. Sheheen served three more terms in the House before retiring at the end of the 1999–2000 session. He was replaced by his nephew, Vincent A. Sheheen. After his legislative service, Sheheen continued his legal career as a member of the firm of Savage, Royall & Sheheen in Camden.