The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a key but controversial section of a state law requiring a supermajority vote in the General Assembly to change certain statues and monuments is unconstitutional.
But the justices ruled the crux of the 21-year-old law can stay in place — that local governments seeking to change historic names and monuments must still get permission from the Legislature, albeit by a simple majority vote in each chamber.
However, even despite the unconstitutionality of the two-thirds rule, the Legislature’s two top Republican leaders vowed to keep the protections in place as opponents are sure to try and reignite the debate when lawmakers return in January.
“While I am disappointed that the Court chose to overturn the crucial two-thirds requirement contained in the original law, the opinion makes clear that the General Assembly is the sole authority,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said.
In their unanimous 22-page opinion, the justices ruled that the legislators who originally passed the Heritage Act in 2000 did not have the authority to bind future legislatures by requiring a supermajority, or two-thirds vote, in each chamber.
Such a lopsided vote is an unconstitutionally high hurdle, the high court said.
The justices called the requirement an “unconstitutional overreach by our General Assembly” because the Legislature in 2000 “had no authority to restrict the power of future legislatures to act by majority vote.”
Their ruling means, going forward, the Legislature will only need a simple majority of lawmakers to vote in favor to alter, change or remove historic names, statues or monuments.
In 2000, lawmakers passed the Heritage Act as a compromise between warring sides as the only way to settle one of the most divisive issues in South Carolina history — what to do with the Confederate flag, the ruling said. At that time, the Confederate flag flew atop one of the most visible public places in South Carolina.
“Removal of the Confederate flag from the dome of the State House was one of the most important — and difficult — political achievements in this State’s history,” the court said, calling the flag’s removal “one of the greatest achievements in the political history of South Carolina.”
The removal of the flag from the dome to the complex grounds did not come without its opponents, the court noted.
“After decades of controversy, members who opposed removing the flag from the dome of the Capitol became willing to compromise (by having a supermajority provision in the Heritage Act) if given the assurance that doing so would not ‘open the floodgates,’ and if the renaming and removal of other historic items could be prevented,” the ruling said.
The law was last debated in 2015, after nine Black parishoners, including a state senator, were killed by a white supremacist inside a Charleston church. Dylann Roof, who remains on death row, was seen photographed holding a Confederate flag.
Five years later, after the murder of George Floyd and a national reckoning over the treatment of Black men and women, the Heritage Act was once again debated, this time outside of the State House doors with opponents calling for the removal of statues and controversial names who grace college and university buildings.
“It’s a step in the right direction to have this issue clarified, and I remain hopeful that ‘Pitch Fork’ Ben Tillman (statue) will be removed from the State House grounds,” state Rep. Seth Rose, D-Richland said. “If not by us, then certainly by our youth that will one day lead.”