Carnival Ecstasy (copy)

The Carnival Ecstasy cruise ship leaves the Port of Charleston for the last time earlier this month. Provided/State Ports Authority

When a cruise ship the size of a skyscraper pulls into town and takes on or disgorges some 3,000 passengers, it’s hard to argue that has no effect on the quality of life in Charleston’s historic downtown. Of course it does. But so far, residents have been denied legal “standing” in litigation related to the expansion of the cruise industry.

That could and should change after the South Carolina Supreme Court considers the legal question on June 11. The cruise ship controversy has surfaced again with the recent arrival of the larger Carnival Cruise Line ship Sunshine, now based in Charleston.

The overarching legal question is whether citizens have a right to challenge governmental decisions that affect them. In this discrete case, it’s whether Charlestonians affected by pollution, traffic and other ills related to cruise ships have a legal right to challenge a permit issued by the Department of Health of Environmental Control for a new cruise terminal.

So far, administrative law courts have said “no.” That’s presumably a legally defensible position, but it’s also downright un-American insomuch that it saps the life out of the fundamental constitutional right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

“We will ask the Supreme Court to restore those rights, which are vital to keep the government in check and accountable to citizens across South Carolina,” plaintiffs attorney Blan Holman of Southern Environmental Law Center told The Post and Courier last summer when the high court agreed to hear the case.

Should the court rule in favor of the plaintiffs, the legal tug of war over the permitting of a new cruise terminal would return to an administrative law court where the plaintiffs, including environmental, historic preservation and neighborhood groups, would at least have their concerns heard.

As it is, the Sunshine will continue to use the cruise terminal next to where the new terminal would be built, pending the outcome of the long-running litigation. And the State Ports Authority is sticking to its voluntary cap of 104 port calls per year.

But it’s clear that Charleston is an attractive port of call for the expanding cruise industry, and the Supreme Court decision will be vital to the people of Charleston in balancing their interests against those of the cruise industry, as well as the State Ports Authority and other entities, far into the future.

If the justices are convinced that state law does not give them the option of allowing this case to proceed, they need to make that clear in their ruling so the Legislature can remedy the problem. It is one thing to be knocked down, but it’s an entirely different matter to be ignored and denied legal standing in a case that has everything to do with citizens having a say in how their quality of life is shaped.

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