Tuesday, November 21, 2017
This past Friday was on of the saddest days in a long time for education rights in the state of South Carolina. In a short five-paragraph order, the state supreme court dismissed Abbeville v. State, a school adequacy and funding case first filed in the late 1990s. The case includes two prior victories before the Supreme Court--one in 1999 allowing the case to proceed to trial and another in 2014 order the state to remedy the inadequacies demonstrated in the case. Those two highlights, however, belie a curious history of judicial enforcement, with the court proceeding at a snail's pace in most instances, but all the while proceeding nonetheless. As I describe in Averting Educational Crisis: Funding Cuts, Teacher Shortages, and the Dwindling Commitment to Public Education--an analysis of national trends in school litigation--
The [South Carolina Supreme Court’s] 2014 decision ordering the state to act came more than two decades after plaintiffs first filed their case. This delay, in large part, was due to the court’s refusal to decide the case. The court took more than two years to decide whether plaintiffs could proceed to trial in 1999. When the case returned to the court in 2008, the court waited nearly six years to issue an opinion on the merits of a potential remedy—so long that at one point it scheduled rehearing to update itself on the case.
At the very least, the case represents a court reluctant to enforce education rights until well after the recession had passed. If justice delayed is justice denied, the decision is surely a loss. Moreover, the long delayed final decision was ambiguous in its mandate, indicating that “the Defendants and the Plaintiff Districts must identify the problems facing students in the Plaintiff Districts, and can solve those problems through cooperatively designing a strategy to address critical concerns and cure the constitutional deficiency . . . .” The court then allowed almost another full year to pass before issuing a timetable for the parties to devise a remedy, which it inexplicably withdrew just weeks later. In September 2016, notwithstanding its original demand that the state “design a strategy to address critical concerns and cure the constitutional deficiency evident in this case,” the court in September 2016 found the state had complied with its order by simply issued an order indicating that the legislature’s efforts to studying educational deficiencies in the state and approving recent minor increases in resources were sufficient to comply with the court’s expectations.
Friday's opinion may ironically be the most definitive in the long running case. In a 3-2 opinion, the Court wrote that "[f]or the following reasons, we vacate the Court's continuing jurisdiction over this matter." The very next sentence explained: "we are convinced Abbeville II was wrongly decided as violative of separation of powers." This, particularly as the first explanation, is troubling as it suggests the case is dictated by a change in court composition rather than reasoned analysis under the controlling law of the cast. The following paragraph offers additional factual justifications, finding that the state had acted in good faith to comply with the Court's prior order.