Lawmaker calls Supreme Court deadline in education funding lawsuit ‘unreasonable’

COLUMBIA — House Speaker Jay Lucas responded with renewed defiance to a deadline set by the South Carolina Supreme Court in a decades-old lawsuit giving lawmakers until Feb. 1 to come up with a plan for providing impoverished rural students with an adequate education.

Lucas called the deadline “arbitrary” and “unreasonable,” accusing the state’s high court of exceeding its authority and saying the justices don’t seem to understand how the legislative process works.

“The biggest worry I have is that the court took 21 years to address this issue,” Lucas said Friday. “Now we have this arbitrary deadline in a case that our Supreme Court essentially ignored for two decades.

“That would lead me to believe that the members of the court are not interested in a thoughtful resolution of these issues but may be concerned with kind of creating a legacy for themselves and that’s certainly not what I think we ought to be doing in this case. What the court did in its recent order is judicial overreach at its very worst.”

The court order Thursday came in response to a request in July by the plaintiffs in the Abbeville County School District v. The State of South Carolina lawsuit to set a deadline for when the Legislature had to present plan for fixing the inequity in the quality of public education between rich and poor districts. The court issued a scathing ruling in November that called on the Legislature and the districts to produce a plan “within a reasonable time.”

In December, Gov. Nikki Haley and legislative leaders called the court’s decision flawed, and asked the court to reverse its decision or rehear the case. Lawmakers have argued unsuccessfully in the past that the court is overstepping its authority by telling policymakers what to do.

In the 10 months since the court issued its Abbeville decision, a House panel created by Lucas has been meeting to discuss potential solutions — in August, committee members discussed consolidating districts and providing technology that could make virtual learning a possibility. Lucas gave the panel until the beginning of the next legislative session in January to present its recommendations.

However, Carl Epps, the attorney representing the school districts, including Berkeley County, that sued in 1993 claiming the state had failed to meet its constitutional mandate to adequately fund education, noted lawmakers will have had 14 months since the ruling was issued by the time the deadline comes around.

“I don’t think the timeline is unfair to anyone,” Epps said. “This is really our one great chance to do something fabulous for the people of South Carolina. It’s been a long time in the making.”

If lawmakers meet the February deadline, the plaintiffs of the case have until March 1 to respond to the Legislature’s proposals. By March 15, a panel of experts has to present a written report to the court. The court will then review the plans and issue an order that discusses whether the proposals bring the state into compliance.

As of yet, South Carolina isn’t facing a penalty if the Legislature fails to meet the deadline. In a similar case in Washington state, its high court held the Legislature in contempt and hit the state with a $100,000-a-day fine in mid-August for not coming up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 public education, as required by a 2012 decision.

Staff writer Schuyler Kropf contributed to this story. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 577-7111.