COLUMBIA — The five black-robed state Supreme Court justices were obviously amused at the question they are supposed to settle.
It boils down to what it means to count to 30.
Summerville and North Charleston are suing each other over a tract that both claim to have annexed. The outcome could determine how many houses are built at Watson Hill, a parcel near Charleston's historic plantations on S.C. Highway 61.
Both municipalities annexed a parcel known as the Barry tract that lets the Watson Hill tract be contiguous to either government. Summerville annexed it to keep North Charleston from getting to Watson Hill; a few days later, North Charleston annexed the Barry tract along with Watson Hill and sued Summerville.
North Charleston says Summerville missed a deadline to publicize the annexation hearing 30 days in advance. First Circuit Judge James Williams ruled that Summerville missed the publicity deadline by 12 hours. Summerville appealed to the higher court.
The justices but aren't expected to rule for several months.
Summerville's attorney, Jack Scoville, argued that Summerville met the deadline because the hearing was held on the 30th day.
"Once you pass the 29th day, you're onto the 30th day," Scoville told the court.
"So a day is not a complete day?" Justice John Waller asked Wednesday.
Scoville pointed out the state statute says "not less than 30 days," which is not the same as requiring "at least 30 days."
"So basically you're trying to say 30 days … really means 29 days," Justice Donald Beatty said.
The key is the intent of the legislation, which was not meant to derail an annexation on a technicality, Scoville said. Chief Justice Jean Toal countered that the law is all about technicalities.
"How would we ever be able to hold our face up to general public if we tell them 29 days is really 30 days?" she asked.
But Justice Costa Pleicones later said that maybe the statute is not all that precise. At the least, it's grammatically incorrect to say "less than 30 days" instead of "fewer than," he said. He noted that umpires often differ on the boundaries of the strike zone. Maybe there is a difference between "not less than" and "at least," he said.
North Charleston City Attorney Brady Hair countered with a sports analogy of his own. Like a runner in a race, Summerville jumped the gun and should be disqualified, he said.
Justice James Moore fired off another one-liner as the justices stood up to dismiss the court. "You should hear from us in not less than 30 days," he said, sending a ripple of laughter through the room.
Once the Supreme Court rules on the 30-day question, the case will go back to circuit court for more arguments.
Events leading to annexation lawsuit
August 2004: Beaufort-based Copper Station Holdings buys Watson Hill from MeadWestvaco.
October 2004: Development group files plans for up to 5,000 houses and hotel rooms around golf course and major new road.
December 2004: Dorchester County Council introduces ordinance to limit development. S.C. Property Holdings buys property.
March 2005: North Charleston annexes former King's Grant golf course, a link to Watson Hill across Ashley River through Barry tract.
April 2005: Landowners approach Summerville officials about annexing 22 parcels, including Barry tract, to form a barrier between North Charleston and Watson Hill.
April 28, 2005: Summerville runs legal notice announcing May 27 public hearing to annex parcels.
April 29, 2005: North Charleston runs legal notice for May 31 public hearing to annex Barry tract, Watson Hill and two strips connecting Watson Hill with S.C. 165.
June 2005: Summerville, North Charleston finalize annexations and sue each other over Barry tract.
March 2006: 1st Circuit Judge James Williams rules state law requires 30 days' notice and Summerville gave 29 days'. Town appeals to state Supreme Court.
April 2: Supreme Court hears arguments on Williams' ruling.