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South Carolina Public Interest Foundation v. Courson

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

May 11, 2017

South Carolina Public Interest Foundation and William B. Depass, Jr., individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Appellants,
v.
Senator John E. Courson, Senator Darrell Jackson, Senator Joel Lourie, Senator John L. Scott, Jr., and The State of South Carolina, Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2014-001412

          Heard October 13, 2016

         Appeal From Richland County G. Thomas Cooper, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

          James G. Carpenter, of Carpenter Law Firm, PC, of Greenville, for Appellants.

          Deputy Solicitor General J. Emory Smith, Jr., of Columbia, for Respondent The State of South Carolina; Edward Houseal Bender and Kenneth M. Moffitt, both of Columbia, for Respondents John E. Courson, Darrell Jackson, Joel Lourie, and John L. Scott, Jr.

          HUFF, J

         The South Carolina Public Interest Foundation (SC Public Interest) appeals the circuit court's order denying S.C. Public Interest's motion for attorney's fees and costs, arguing the state action statute, section 15-77-300 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2016), applies to Senators John E. Courson, Darrell Jackson, Joel Lourie, and John L. Scott, Jr. (the Senators). We affirm.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 15, 2011, the Senators introduced legislation in the South Carolina Senate to consolidate the Richland County Board of Voter Registration and the Richland County Election Commission. The legislation also changed the appointment process for board members and established criteria for board members of the newly-created board. Upon its passage, the legislation became Act 17 of 2011.

         In 2012, SC Public Interest filed this action in the circuit court in Richland County seeking a declaratory judgment that Act 17 was unconstitutional and requesting costs and attorney's fees pursuant to the state action statute, section 15-77-300 of the South Carolina Code. S.C. Public Interest brought the action against the Senators and the state of South Carolina arguing Act 17 was unconstitutional as local legislation that violated the South Carolina Constitution Article III, Section 34, and as a law for a specific county in violation of South Carolina Constitution Article VIII, Section 7. S.C. Public Interest and the Senators filed cross motions for summary judgment. On August 26, 2013, the circuit court granted S.C. Public Interest's motion for summary judgment and found Act 17 unconstitutional. The circuit court withheld ruling on S.C. Public Interest's request for costs and attorney's fees until S.C. Public Interest filed a motion supported by affidavit of counsel. The Senators moved to alter or amend the judgment and the circuit court denied the motion. S.C. Public Interest moved for attorney's fees and filed an affidavit in support of the motion. On March 19, 2014, the circuit court issued an order denying S.C. Public Interest's motion for costs and attorney's fees. The circuit court stated individual members of the General Assembly were immune from a recovery of costs and attorney's fees under the state statute, Section 15-77-300, as well as the general civil action costs provision of Section 15-37-10 of the South Carolina Code (2005). The circuit court found the state action statute did not apply to members of the General Assembly because it only applied to executive branch agencies. S.C. Public Interest filed a motion to alter or amend the circuit court's order denying the motion for attorney's fees, which the circuit court denied. This appeal followed.

          STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "The decision to award or deny attorneys' fees under the state action statute will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion by the trial court in considering the applicable factors set forth by the statute." Layman v. State, 376 S.C. 434, 444, 658 S.E.2d 320, 325 (2008). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the conclusions of the trial court are either controlled by an error of law or are based on unsupported factual conclusions." Id.

         In this case, the issue of whether the statute applies depends on the court's interpretation of the term "appropriate agency" pursuant to the state action statute. "The interpretation of a statute is a question of law, which this [c]ourt reviews de novo." Id.

         LAW/ANALYSIS

         "The cardinal rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the legislature." Grimsley v. S.C. Law Enf't Div., 396 S.C. 276, 281, 721 S.E.2d 423, 426 (2012). The best evidence of legislative intent is the plain language of the statute. Perry v. Bullock, 409 S.C. 137, 140, 761 S.E.2d 251, 253 (2014). "When interpreting the plain meaning of a statute, courts should not resort to subtle or forced construction to limit or expand the statute's operation." Grimsley, 396 S.C. at 281, 721 S.E.2d at 426. If the term at issue is not ...


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