Politics & Government

This SC man won a Supreme Court case. He wants to know why he can't talk about it

Beach houses at Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms.
Beach houses at Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms.

The University of South Carolina law school is holding a three-day event to mark the 25th anniversary of a S.C. man’s legal victory in the U.S. Supreme Court. But the victor in that case, Davis Lucas, isn’t invited, and he’s upset.

The symposium, continuing through Saturday, focuses on the 25th anniversary of the Lucas v. S.C. Coastal Council case, a dispute over a beachfront housing lot. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case limited the government’s ability to regulate use of privately owned land. A quarter of a century later, attorneys, law professors and state regulators will be discussing the ruling’s impact on coastal development.

Lucas, who sued for the right to build on two lots on the Isle of Palms, is upset neither he nor his attorneys were invited to participate. He said he only found out the forum was being held because a friend’s son attends USC’s law school.

Lucas, who lives in Bishopville, worries his argument in support of property rights won’t be represented. Meanwhile, he expects state regulators to argue the court ruling limits their ability to protect the coast. Lucas also is upset that former S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal, who joined a majority on the state Supreme Court in ruling against him before he won his federal appeal, was invited.

“It’s curious that she’s involved, but the other side” isn’t, Lucas said.

Organizers say the conference’s purpose is not to re-litigate the 1992 ruling. Instead, they want to examine the impact of the Lucas case on coastal issues today. Many of those attending are law students, listening to the discussion for course credit, they add.

“This one focuses on ‘takings law’ more broadly,” said Josh Eagle, USC’s Solomon Blatt Professor of Law. “We did a conference on the 15th anniversary where we did invite him to participate in a panel,” along with the attorneys involved.

The Lucas decision centered on whether S.C. state government had to pay a landowner compensation in return for passing a law that restricted development. The Beachfront Management Act, adopted in 1988, was intended to push development away from the shore, protecting beaches from erosion, supporters said.

On Nov. 20, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lucas’ favor. Ultimately, the state had to pay more than $1 million for his land.

Lucas argues development is good for beach-side communities.

“My God, the property tax on beach-front houses that people pay,” Lucas said. “They’re bringing investment and talent into South Carolina, and the state and the government are going to regulate people out.”

Scholars argue the legal effects of the Lucas case are not that broad.

A court has to find a government restriction renders a property worthless before a landowner can claim compensation. Of nearly 600 legal challenges based on the Lucas decision, no more than 13 have been successful nationally, according to a 2007 analysis.

“In other takings, if it’s not 100 percent valueless, Lucas won’t apply,” Eagle said.

But, the professor added, it is “very common to hear people say, ‘We can’t do this because of Lucas. ... It has a lot more force as this political myth.”