Lawsuit challenging Heritage Act as unconstitutional filed with SC Supreme Court

Updated: Jul. 22, 2020 at 11:31 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Calls to remove Confederate statues and memorials across South Carolina have led to a renewed spotlight on the Heritage Act.

Local politicians and community members have filed a lawsuit with the State Supreme Court, calling for the Heritage Act to be ruled unconstitutional.

The Heritage Act is a law that was passed in 2000 that prevents certain monuments from being removed from public property in the state without a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly.

The lawsuit comes after several high profile votes, including Orangeburg City Council’s call to remove a Confederate statue, the moving of the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston, and a vote by UofSC board members to change the name of the J. Marion Sims Dorm.

“It’s time to make another change in our social norms in South Carolina,” Columbia At-Large Councilman Howard Duvall said.

The lawsuit argues that requiring a two-thirds vote, also known as a supermajority, to amend or repeal the Heritage Act is unconstitutional because it limits the rights of future legislators to make decisions that represent the people. The lawsuit also argues that it is unconstitutional because it violates “home rule” of local cities and counties.

Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall, Jennifer Pinckney, and Kay Patterson filed the lawsuit.

“It takes a two-thirds vote to amend it or change it and that is sort of unprecedented, all of the legislation in the General Assembly is passed by a majority vote,” I.S. Leevy Johnson, a former member of the State House of Representatives, said.

Johnson, who’s also a civil rights attorney, said getting a two-thirds vote is a difficult hurdle.

“It was to make it difficult to change and get rid of these monuments on the State House grounds,” Johnson said.

In June, Attorney General Alan Wilson issued an opinion stating that this part of the law could be unconstitutional because the General Assembly only passes laws with a simple majority under the state constitution, but that the Heritage Act by itself is constitutional.

The lawsuit argues the law also violates “home rule,” which are powers delegated to county and city governments to do what is necessary and proper for their citizens.

“The Heritage Act takes away that authority for renaming streets, for removing monuments, for renaming schools, things that are in the local jurisdiction of a city council and a county council,” Duvall said.

Some supporters of the Heritage Act said having a statewide law is a good thing.

“The slippery slope part is if you remove that it’s going to be very easy for cities and counties to start removing everything,” Eric Corcoran, director of South Carolina We the People, said.

Corcoran said he would like to see a referendum be held on the future of certain statues in South Carolina.

Meanwhile, some local governments have found ways to get around the Heritage Act.

The Charleston City Council recently removed the Calhoun Statue on the grounds that it’s not a war monument and it stood on private property.

Wilson agreed the Calhoun statue does not fall under the Heritage Act.

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