Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
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Petitioners' real property was sold at a delinquent tax sale. They filed an action in circuit court to challenge the sale, and all parties consented to have the case referred to a special referee for trial. Petitioners agreed to allow defendants (respondents here) to present their evidence first. After the testimony of one witness, the county's tax collector, defendants moved to approve the sale. The special referee granted the motion. Petitioners objected, arguing they were not permitted to give their factual presentation of the case. The special referee denied the motion, and the court of appeals affirmed. On appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court, petitioners argued they were deprived of due process, including the right to be heard and the right to present witnesses and other evidence. The Supreme Court granted the petition, dispensed with briefing, reversed the court of appeals, and remanded to the circuit court for a new trial. "The special referee made factual findings and issued judgment in the middle of a trial after hearing from only one witness. ... The law ... does not permit a court to issue judgment against a party before giving that party an opportunity to present evidence in support of her position." View "Halsey v. Simmons" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Sha'quille Washington was indicted for the murder of Herman Manigault and was convicted of the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter. The court of appeals affirmed Petitioner's conviction. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted petitioner's petition for certiorari review of the appellate court's judgment. After such review, the Supreme Court determined the trial court erred in giving an accomplice liability instruction, and held petitioner was prejudiced by this error. Therefore, the Court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and reversed in part, and remanded to the circuit court for a new trial on the charge of voluntary manslaughter. View "South Carolina v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Appellant Don Weaver brought a declaratory judgment action to challenge the constitutionality of S.C. Code Ann. section 6-11-271 (2004), which addressed the millage levied in certain special purpose districts. Appellant owned property and was a taxpayer in the Recreation District, a special purpose district created to fund the operation and maintenance of parks and other recreational facilities in the unincorporated areas of Richland County, South Carolina. Appellant first argued section 6-11-271 was unconstitutional because it violated the South Carolina Constitution's prohibition on taxation without representation. Appellant next contended section 6-11-271 did not affect all counties equally and was, therefore, special legislation that was prohibited by the South Carolina Constitution. Appellant lastly argued section 6-11-271 was void because it violated Home Rule as set forth in the state constitution and the Home Rule Act. The circuit court found Appellant failed to meet his burden of establishing any constitutional infirmity. To this, the South Carolina Supreme Court concurred and affirmed judgment. View "Weaver v. Recreation District" on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) suspended Bradley Sanders' driver's license pursuant to South Carolina's implied consent statute after he refused to take a blood-alcohol test following his arrest for driving under the influence (DUI). The suspension was upheld by the Office of Motor Vehicles and Hearings (OMVH), the Administrative Law Court (ALC), and the court of appeals. Sanders argued on appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court that the decision of the court of appeals should have been reversed due to a lack of substantial evidence in the record to support the suspension. Specifically, Sanders argued the court of appeals erred in: (1) determining there was substantial evidence that a nurse, who was working in the emergency room at the time Sanders was admitted, qualified as licensed medical personnel; and (2) holding the statements used to establish his alleged inability to submit to a breath test were not hearsay. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the suspension. View "Sanders v. So. Carolina Dept. Motor Veh." on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (the Commission) brought this action against respondents Zeyi Chen and Zhirong Yang, alleging they violated the South Carolina Fair Housing Law by discriminating against a prospective tenant. The action was based on a complaint received from Stacy Woods, who reported that she responded to an ad on Craigslist for a rental residence in Mount Pleasant and was told it was not available. Woods maintained she was refused the rental property because she had a four-year-old daughter. The Commission appealed circuit court orders:(1) denying the Commission's motion pursuant to Rule 43(k), SCRCP to enforce the parties' settlement agreement; (2) finding certain information was obtained by the Commission during the conciliation process and was, therefore, subject to orders of protection and inadmissible under S.C. Code Ann. section 31-21-120(A) (2007) of the Fair Housing Law; and (3) ultimately dismissing the Commission's action based on a finding section 31-21-120(A) was unconstitutional and the entire statute was void. After review, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The Court found the requirements of Rule 43(k) clearly were not met, for the reasons found by the circuit court. Consequently, the circuit court's order denying the Commission's motion to compel enforcement of the settlement agreement was affirmed. The Commission contended the circuit court declined to give adequate consideration to comparable federal law to aid its decision and gave no deference to the Commission's interpretation. To this, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the circuit court as to orders of protection related to conciliation efforts. Further, the Supreme Court concurred with the Commission the circuit court erred in dismissing claims against Respondents pursuant to section 31-21-120(A) as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court held Respondents did not meet their "heavy burden" of proving the statute was unconstitutionally vague. View "So. Car. Human Affairs Commission v. Yang" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Robin Herndon was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for shooting and killing her live-in boyfriend, Christopher Rowley, allegedly, in self defense. Petitioner was tried for murder; the case against Petitioner was largely circumstantial. Petitioner requested the Logan circumstantial evidence charge, but the trial court refused, opting instead for the pre-Logan circumstantial evidence charge. On appeal, there was no contention that the trial court properly refused to give a "Logan" charge. Instead, the State contended the court's failure to give the Logan charge was a harmless error, for the jury instructions as a whole were substantially correct. The court of appeals summarily accepted the State's argument and affirmed. After review, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that while there may be cases in which a trial court's failure to five the Logan charge is indeed harmless, "this is not such a case." The State's case against Petitioner was almost exclusively circumstantial. The State relied on: (1) eyewitness testimony prior to the shooting to suggest Petitioner was angry; and (2) testimony from the pathologist explaining the pathway of the bullet could have been caused by Petitioner shooting the victim as he walked up the stairs to the house. In urging the Supreme Court to find the error was harmless, "the State entirely disregards the testimony of its own witness that it was plausible the fatal wound could have been caused by the victim charging Petitioner, exactly as Petitioner testified. The competing inferences involved in this circumstantial evidence case illustrate well the need for the Logan charge. Because the failure to provide the Logan circumstantial evidence charge was not harmless and that failure manifestly prejudiced Petitioner, we reverse and remand for a new trial." View "South Carolina v. Herndon" on Justia Law

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John Massey, Jr. was indicted for first-degree burglary, grand larceny, and criminal conspiracy. The circuit court granted a defense motion to quash the indictment for first-degree burglary on the basis the premises entered did not qualify as a dwelling. The court of appeals affirmed. The State contended on appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court that, beyond the fact that the circuit court did not have the authority to quash a facially valid indictment on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds, the court of appeals erred in affirming the circuit court's ruling on the merits. To this, the Supreme Court agreed, and reversed. The matter was remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings. View "South Carolina v. Massey" on Justia Law

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Billy Phillips was convicted of murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. At trial, a DNA analyst testified Phillips could not be excluded as a contributor to a mixture of DNA recovered from two samples taken from the crime scene. The analyst conceded, however, the statistical probability that some other randomly selected and unrelated person also could not be excluded as the person who left the DNA was, for one of the samples, only one in two. Furthermore, the State failed to explain to the trial court or the jury three fundamental concepts underlying the DNA testimony the analyst gave in this particular case. Finally, in several instances, the State presented information to the trial court and the jury that was simply wrong. Taking all of this into consideration, the South Carolina Supreme Court held the trial court erred in not sustaining Phillips' objections to this testimony. The conviction was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Phillips" on Justia Law

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"The right to vote is a cornerstone of our constitutional republic." The voting laws implicated in this case were South Carolina statutes governing absentee voting. Pursuant to subsection 7-15-320(A) of the South Carolina Code (2019), absentee ballots could be used by certain voters who were unable to vote in person because they were absent from their county of residence on election day during the hours the polls are open. Subsection 7-15-320(B) allowed voters to cast absentee ballots when they were not absent from the county, but only if they fit into one of the listed categories of people eligible to vote by absentee ballot. Plaintiffs contended that in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, existing South Carolina law permitted all South Carolina registered voters to vote by absentee ballot in the June 9, 2020 primary election and the November 3, 2020 general election. Plaintiffs implicitly contended that if existing law did not permit this, it should. Plaintiffs asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to hear this case in its original jurisdiction. The South Carolina Republican Party was granted permission to intervene, and moved to dismiss. The Supreme Court granted the request to hear the case in its original jurisdiction, declined to dismiss on grounds raised by the South Carolina Republican Party, but dismissed on alternate grounds: the case did not present a justiciable controversy. View "Bailey v. SC State Election" on Justia Law

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Kathryn Key was convicted in summary court of driving under the influence (DUI). Her conviction was based upon the testing of her blood, which was drawn without a warrant while she was unconscious. The circuit court reversed and remanded, finding the summary court should have suppressed evidence of Key's blood alcohol concentration because the State did not obtain a warrant. The State appealed, and the appeal was transferred to the South Carolina Supreme Court. While the appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court decided Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019). In Mitchell, the Supreme Court held for the first time that, generally, law enforcement was permitted to draw the blood of an unconscious DUI suspect without a search warrant pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. However, the Supreme Court acknowledged the possibility of an "unusual" case presenting an exception to this new general rule. The Mitchell Court determined the defendant should be given the opportunity to establish the applicability of the exception to the general rule and remanded the case to the trial court for that purpose. The South Carolina Court carefully considered the Mitchell holding and concluded it would not impose upon a defendant the burden of establishing the absence of exigent circumstances. The Court held the burden of establishing the existence of exigent circumstances remained upon the State. The exigent circumstances issue in this case was not ruled upon by the summary court; therefore, it was remanded for further proceedings at the summary court. View "South Carolina v. Key" on Justia Law