October 3, 2012

SC Supreme Court in spotlight – and on hot seat

Taxes. Gun rights. Quality schools. Health insurance rates. A tax cheat lawyer’s right to hold a law license.

Taxes. Gun rights. Quality schools. Health insurance rates. A tax cheat lawyer’s right to hold a law license.

These issues and more are putting the S.C. Supreme Court on the hot seat and in the spotlight these days.

Take, for example, the “stand-your-ground” gun rights case of the State vs. James Curry, in which a lawyer for Curry argued last month before the court that it is legal for South Carolinians who feel threatened by someone to shoot and kill that person – even if the shooter isn’t on his own property.

“Why wouldn’t that be absurd? We could all carry guns and just shoot anybody that threatened us – I’m 5’1”, almost everybody is bigger than me,” opined Associate Justice Kay Hearn last month as she questioned the lawyer in the case, which is bound to be closely watched by gun-rights supporters. A ruling is pending.

At issue: Whether South Carolina’s self-defense law made it legal for a man who got beat up in his mother’s house to go upstairs, get a gun, come back downstairs and then shoot his unarmed assailant in the back, killing him. Curry, of Lancaster, is appealing his 18-year prison sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

Justices indicated they will be reluctant to issue a ruling that could turn South Carolina into a shooting gallery.

If it were legal for Curry to kill in his case, then “we are back to an idea about justice more prevalent to our Western states in the early stages of their formation,” Chief Justice Jean Toal said.

Another high-profile Supreme Court case involves former Columbia City Council member E. W. Cromartie, who was convicted of income tax evasion and served a 10-month federal prison sentence in 2011.

A high court disciplinary panel has recommended that Cromartie be disbarred, but Cromartie is appealing that recommendation, asking instead to stay on suspended status so as not to embarrass his lawyer son, who has the same name.

His case will be argued before the high court Thursday.

Legal ethics expert John Freeman, of the University of South Carolina law school, indicated that case might be a tough one, since Cromartie hadn’t actually stolen any money – a huge sin in the legal world.

“If Cromartie had stolen money from clients, he’d be toast,” Freeman said. In Cromartie’s favor, he said, is that he has some 30-plus years of public service doing good things for the community.

“I’m confident the court will look at the positives and negatives, fairly judge both sides and come up with a result that’s fair to Mr. Cromartie and to the public,” said Freeman, declining to favor one side or the other.

But Freeman did cite a decidedly non-legal source: poet Dylan Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood, which contains these lines about human behavior: “We are not wholly bad or good / Who live our lives under Milk Wood.”

The court is also mulling:

•  Whether 78 sales tax exemptions and caps granted over the years by the Legislature for special interest groups – such as no tax on prescription drugs and a $300 sales tax cap for cars and trucks – are unconstitutional.

The lawyers who argued the case last November told the justices that the loss of billions in yearly tax revenue from the exemptions is hurting state public schools. Opposing the suit, the Legislature argues that it – and not the Supreme Court – should make changes in the tax law.

To find the exemptions unconstitutional would amount to a “$3 billion backdoor tax hike,” Legislative leaders have said. Matthew Bodman, a Columbia taxpayer, brought the suit.

What to do on a 20-year-old public school quality standards case. This case, argued last month, could require the Legislature to take action on state school policies and possibly spend millions more on public education.

Although the state constitution guarantees all S.C. children a free public education, school quality varies considerably across the state. Wealthy districts such as those in Lexington County have plenty of outsized school budgets to hire good teachers, have rich course offerings and build modern schools. In many poor districts, students contend with unqualified teachers, skimpy course offerings, overcrowded classes and dilapidated buildings.

• Whether to uphold an August decision by the State Budget and Control Board to increase health care premiums by 4.6 percent for the state’s group health plan – which covers some 417,000 current and retired employees and their families. The board said the increase – which will bring in an additional $20 million yearly – was necessary to cope with rising health care costs.

Three citizens – Bernadette Hampton of Beaufort County, Jackie Hicks of York County and Carlton Washington of Richland County – claim in a lawsuit that it should be up to the Legislature, and not the Budget and Control Board, to hike health insurance premiums.

Last July, the Legislature voted not to raise insurance rates on state workers. But in August, the Budget and Control Board – a five-member budgetary body whose members include Gov. Nikki Haley, the chairs of the House and Senate finance committees, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom and State Treasurer Curtis Loftis – 3-2 vote for the hikes.

• Whether to apply the S.C. Freedom of Information Act to the S.C. Association of School Administrators, a group supported in large part by taxpayers’ money. Its employees receive state funded health insurance and participate in the state retirement system. The plaintiff in the case, Rocky Disabato, says the public money makes the group to the FOI.

The association, a non-profit corporation, is made up of public school leaders and has over the years made high-profile advocacy efforts on issues such as enhanced public school funding and opposition to private school tax vouchers. In 2009, it sued then-Gov. Mark Sanford, seeking to compel him to apply to the federal government for some $780 million in funds for public education and other public services.

The association’s advocacy efforts would “be seriously impeded” if it were to open its records to opponents of its public positions, according to briefs filed in the case.

That case will be argued before the Supreme Court this morning.

The court also has agreed to revisit its opinion upholding the murder conviction of Billy Wayne Cope, a York County man serving a life sentence after a jury heard a confession he gave police and found him guilty of killing his two daughters.

However, numerous apparent inconsistencies in the case have caught the attention of national legal experts on false confessions. Those experts, supported by a group of activist South Carolina defense lawyers and former prosecutors, successfully petitioned the court for another hearing on the case.

Although numerous cases of false confessions due to inappropriate police pressure have been documented around the nation, none are known here in any sort of high-profile murder case.

The court has not yet set a date for Cope’s case to be argued.

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