EXCLUSIVE | School equity suit

SC Supreme Court to revisit school funding case

Two justices are new to court since it heard arguments on fairness of education in S.C.

dhinshaw@thestate.com May 26, 2012 

  • School funding case The court case over the way South Carolina funds its public schools, Abbeville County School District, et al., v. The State of South Carolina, et al., goes back nearly 20 years: November 1993 – Complaint filed. September 1996 – Case dismissed. April 1999 – Supreme Court reverses and remands to trial court. July 2003 – Trial begins. December 2005 – Judge Thomas w. Cooper Jr. issues order. August 2007 – Both sides appeal. June 2008 – Supreme Court hears oral arguments. May 23, 2012 – Supreme Court orders re-arguments.

Nearly four years after the S.C. Supreme Court heard arguments in a momentous school funding lawsuit, the justices have ordered the lawyers to come back to argue the case again.

A two-page order, dated Wednesday, provides few clues as to why.

But the justices instructed lawyers to be prepared to discuss any recent legislation on public school financing that may have affected the case.

The core question is whether South Carolina provides poor, rural school districts with enough money to ensure that their students get the same constitutionally guaranteed “minimally adequate” education as do students in wealthier communities.

The legal question has roots going back nearly 20 years.

Since the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on June 25, 2008, two of the five justices have retired. Rather than having the retired members return, their replacements – Justices Kaye Hearn and John Kittredge – will hear the arguments, scheduled for Sept. 18 at 10:30 a.m., according to Dan Shearouse, chief clerk of the Supreme Court.

The other members of the court are Chief Justice Jean Toal and Justices Costa Pleicones and Donald Beatty.

Bob Bockman, a law school professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in the appeals process, said a court generally would call for re-arguments if it needs clarification or more information.

He said the length of time without a ruling reflects the complexity and gravity of the school-funding issue.

“It is a highly significant case that has repercussions for all three branches of government,” he said.

There have been no changes in the funding formula since 2005, said Jay Ragley, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education.

Yet the justices may have been hoping the Legislature would address the issue, suggested state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.

“It’s our duty to appropriate, and not the courts’,” said Smith, who has served in the House since 1996. “The court – this is speculation – is giving the Legislature every opportunity to fulfill its duty and take action. But as time goes on, it becomes far more doubtful that is going to be the case.”

The lawyers involved, meanwhile, will need to prepare quickly.

They include Steve Morrison of Columbia, representing 36 rural school districts; and Bobby Stepp, also of Columbia, who represents state government. Morrison is with the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough firm. Stepp is with Sowell Gray.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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