You might not get much in your morning newspaper if reporters didn’t turn in stories by a certain time. Deadlines keep reporters — and columnists — on task. If there were not a specific time limit to submit a story for publication, the story might never get written. There’s always somebody else you can call or interview.
Like newspapers, courts set deadlines frequently. Time limits provide some certainty in the often long, convoluted judicial process and move cases along toward conclusions. In some cases, like the redrawing of political districts required by law, there’s only a limited time for new lines to be drawn. When reapportionment cases end up in court, as they seem to do in South Carolina, judges frequently set deadlines so a plan can be developed and resolved. Then elections, a foundation of our democracy, can proceed as required by law. Without deadlines imposed by courts, there’s no telling how long it would take to even up the size of House, Senate and congressional districts.
So now come South Carolina legislative leaders, squawking about deadlines imposed by the S.C. Supreme Court. In November, it ruled the legislature and poor school districts had to come up with a solution to fund schools on a more equal basis.
On one hand, this caterwauling is somewhat justified because the case, Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, was first filed by poorer school districts in 1993 in an attempt to get more equitable funding for “Corridor of Shame” schools. It took the court system 21 years to deal with the case. In recent years, the case sat virtually untouched at that same Supreme Court with no movement until intrepid reporters started writing, wondering what the heck was going on.
Bottom line: The Court didn’t move at lightning speed to ensure justice for poor school districts. Two generations of kids started and graduated from schools that were just about as lacking in 1993 as they were in November 2014 when the court finally put the state on notice that it had failed in its educational duties to poorer school districts.
It is, therefore, understandable that legislative leaders are a little miffed the high court is pushing hard now for a resolution — ruling that a plan for remediation and proposed legislation to fix the funding problem has to be in by Feb. 1, 2016 — just two days before the General Assembly is expected to vote on a new chief justice to replace retiring Jean Toal, who has been on the court since before the Abbeville case was filed.
Legislators now say the court’s push for a resolution to the case is paramount to creating a constitutional crisis — that the court is overstepping its constitutional authority by seeking to legislate from the bench.
Hogwash. First, courts have a responsibility to ensure that something found wrong — what lawyers call a “constitutional defect” — gets fixed so injustice does not continue. Second, legislators have long known the Abbeville case was going to be something that would cost big in the end. Instead of fixing school funding as the case lagged in the courts, the legislature mostly ignored it and kept on with business as usual, which we know generally means doing as little as possible before the next election.
What’s worrisome now is the General Assembly may try to use a different kind of crisis — the flood that exposed billions of dollars of transportation infrastructure needs — as an excuse to do nothing much to fix education funding. In short, that would be wrong. Indeed, it would be unconscionable.
This legislature should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. If members can’t, they need to get out of the way so we can elect people who can.
Don’t let fair education funding get snowballed by other needs. Stop complaining about deadlines and work with the court to move things along responsibly. South Carolina’s poor children have waited long enough.