One of the three candidates in the race for the open seat on the S.C. Supreme Court has signaled he might not agree with the high court’s historic 2014 ruling in the state’s decades-old school funding lawsuit.
And that has made him appealing to some GOP lawmakers who believe the high court over-reached in that case.
Under questioning in a November hearing by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, John Few, who is now chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals, compared the majority’s 3-2 opinion in what’s known as the Abbeville case with a newspaper editorial.
Although Few told Martin he might personally be “appalled” that children in rural schools aren’t getting a proper public school education, according to recently released transcripts, he elaborated, “If I were writing an editorial on the subject, I might say some of the very same things the Supreme Court said in their majority opinion.”
Few continued, “But when I’m writing a judicial opinion, I’m going to center my thinking on my role as a judge within the confines that are laid out for me in the constitution of South Carolina.”
At one point, Few told Martin he wanted to “tread carefully here ... because this is a hot conversation here.”
In general, judges are not supposed to say how they would rule on a given case, and Few appeared to tip-toe through Martin’s questions, avoiding giving an obviously specific answer.
Whoever wins 85 of 169 votes in the Legislature on Wednesday will take one of five seats on the court whose members, while elected by state lawmakers, can also be the last voice in telling lawmakers how to conduct their business.
Few is running against Ralph King “Tripp” Anderson III of Columbia, currently chief judge of the six-judge S.C. Administrative Law Court, and Harris Bruce Williams of Columbia, who sits on the state appeals court.
Some lawmakers agree with the dissent in Abbeville, Martin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Few during the hearing.
In the Abbeville case, the Supreme Court found 3-2 that the Legislature has a constitutional duty to provide a “minimally adequate” education to its poorest children who live in counties along the I-95 corridor, a regional many call the Corridor of Shame because of its low quality public schools.
That 2014 opinion infuriated some conservative lawmakers, who said the Supreme Court had overreached and written new law when there was no basis in the state Constitution for the state to be required to fund any minimal education standard. The court and the legislature also have gotten in tangles about a timetable for the legislature to act on the Abbeville decision.
In more general language, Martin also questioned Williams and Anderson about the Abbeville decision. Both men said, generally speaking, they would be reluctant to overturn prior decisions of the Supreme Court but would do so if convinced the original decision was wrong. Both also said, generally speaking, they would not order the Legislature to take any action.
Martin asked Few if he would think the high court could require the Legislature to, “for example, to enforce some order on public policy?”
Few replied that orders of courts are generally aimed at citizens, not other branches of government, and that makes it “highly unlikely that the judicial branch of government would ever issue a writ (order) against the legislative branch of government.”
In an interview last week, Martin praised all three but said he was voting for Few. “They are all three exceptionally well qualified. Obviously, I can only vote for one.”
Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, said he’s voting for Few because “he has the broader experience and is extremely intelligent.”
Hembree, Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, interviewed all three candidates recently and shared their impressions with the Republican majority in the Senate. “That’s what the (GOP) Caucus asked us to do.”
Few had “a clear understanding” of the separation of powers and the constitutional limits of the judiciary, Hembree said. “Judge Anderson expressed that very clearly as well.”
Some said they wanted to read the transcripts to see exactly what the justice candidates said on the Abbeville case.
“Public education is absolutely critical to me in the selection of any justice,” said Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, who said he remains undecided but wants to read the transcripts. “I want to be sure the court reflects a viewpoint that impacts so many of our children.”