Two residents have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Columbia to halt changes to the Fairfield County school board approved last week by the General Assembly.
Carnell Murphy Sr. and Lionel Washington have asked for an immediate injunction to prevent implementation of two bills passed into law.
One law allows state Sen. Creighton Coleman and Rep. Boyd Brown - both Democrats of Fairfield County- to appoint two members to the currently elected school board, expanding it to a nine-member board. The second law allows Coleman and Brown to strip the board of its financial authority and vest that authority in a new five-member finance committee, also to be appointed by Coleman and Brown.
Murphy is a former Fairfield County teacher, coach and County Council member. Efforts to reach Murphy and Washington on Monday were unsuccessful.
According to the suit, filed Thursday after the state Senate allowed the bills to become law on a single vote - Coleman's - the changes require pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department to be implemented. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires federal approval when major changes are made to elections and elected bodies.
"In the department's view, it would take a pre-clearance to implement the legislation," said Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar, who said the legislation would have to be examined to determine whether it was discriminatory in its intent.
Miyar said an initial review could take up to 60 days, and if additional information were requested after that, each review could also take up to 60 days.
If the legislation is struck down and rewritten, it will have to go through the House and Senate again.
The suit also asks the court to declare as unconstitutional the two new laws, passed by the General Assembly as "local legislation". Both houses of the General Assembly regularly pass laws specific to local areas, customarily with only the participation of local delegation members.
"(We) ... challenge the legality of the South Carolina General Assembly's methods, practices, and protocol of enacting 'local legislation' through local legislative delegations," states the suit, filed by Orangeburg attorney Glenn Walters.
The suit names House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, in his official capacity of speaker as a defendant, along with Coleman and Brown, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The suit alleges the defendants are depriving Murphy and Washington of their civil rights protections under the cloak of custom.
These two proposals, put forth by Coleman and Brown to address ongoing problems with the school board, were passed by the House and Senate, vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford because he said they violate state law empowering local government, and passed again by the House and Senate in overrides.
House members were reluctant to vote on the bills affecting Fairfield County, and the Senate refused altogether to vote on the bills, leaving it to Coleman.
The suit asks the court to intervene before parts of the two bills are set to go into law, as early as April 1.
Brown and Coleman had not asked the U.S. Justice Department for pre-clearances by late Monday, but if they do, the process could take months to complete.