South Carolina Supreme Court Orders Legislature to Develop A Remedial Plan and Sets Up an Expert Panel to Review It; State and Plaintiffs Then Ask the Court to Reconsider the Order

in NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK, South Carolina, South Carolina Litigation

On September 24, 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court set off a new flurry of activity in the long-running Abbeville County School District v. the State of South Carolina litigation. In response to a motion filed by the plaintiffs,  the Court released an interim order that set up a three person expert panel to analyze potential solutions for the problems highlighted in the court’s decision and to review and advise the court on the defendants’ plan for ameliorating these problems. The order also set down a definite timeline that would require the defendants’ plan and the expert panel’s analysis of it to be submitted to the Court by March 15, 2016; the Court would then undertake a de novo review of the plan and issue a final decision.

Nearly a year ago, in November 2014, a divided South Carolina Supreme Court in Abbeville II had found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a minimally adequate education to all schoolchildren in South Carolina, particularly those in the rural and property-poor, majority-minority districts that had brought the suit against the state. South Carolina Litigation History. In the landmark decision, the Court found that the plaintiff-school districts and the state were both implicated in the failure to provide these students the constitutionally guaranteed standard of schooling and, therefore, ordered them both to work together on a plan to redress these educational shortcomings.  In response to the court’s ruling, both houses of the legislature and the plaintiffs had formed Task Forces and committees to develop remedies that addressed the Court’s ruling.

The interim order set forth a number of intermediary deadlines that the legislature was to meet on the path to implementing a constitutionally sound school funding scheme under the guidance of the expert panel.  It also required that the legislature’s plan, together with the expert panel’s analysis and recommendations and plaintiffs’ reaction to the plan be submitted to the Court by March 15, 2016 for its “de novo review of the [state-]Defendants’ plan and the expert panel’s report and recommendations on implementing a constitutionally-compliant education system.”

The legislature almost immediately indicated that it had no intention of submitting to the court’s interim order.  And in late October, the governor and the legislature filed a petition asking the Court to withdraw its interim order in its entirety, claiming that the Court violated separation of power principles and exceeded its authority by purporting to have the legislature submit its plans for approval to the expert panel and the Court.  Anxious for a resolution to a lawsuit that has wound its way through South Carolina’s courts for two decades, and acknowledging that the legislative task forces are making progress, the plaintiff-school districts for their part then asked the Court to withdraw the intermediary deadlines set forth in its interim order, give the legislature until the end of the 2016 session ( probably mid-June) to come up with a final plan and appoint a single expert to advise the Court in its review of the plan.

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