Spencer v. South Carolina Tax Commission

PETITIONER: Spencer
RESPONDENT: South Carolina Tax Commission
LOCATION: We’ll Do Club

DOCKET NO.: 84-249
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 471 US 82 (1985)
ARGUED: Feb 27, 1985
DECIDED: Mar 27, 1985

ADVOCATES:
Henry L. Parr, Jr. - on behalf of the Petitioners
Ray N. Stevens - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Spencer v. South Carolina Tax Commission

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 1985 in Spencer v. South Carolina Tax Commission

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Parr, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Henry L. Parr, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This is not a complicated case.

Plain statutory language, legislative history, and holdings of this Court established the right of the Petitioners, Roger and Shirley Spencer, to the attorney's fees that they seek in this case.

This case arose because the legislature of South Carolina enacted an unconstitutionally discriminatory tax statute.

That unconstitutional discrimination cost the Spencers approximately $500.

Fortunately, Congress had given the Spencers a remedy for this unconstitutional violation.

In Section 1983 the Spencers had a federal cause of action, and in 1976 Congress had enacted what is now Section 1988, giving the Spencers the availability of attorney's fees to help them remedy constitutional deprivations just like this.

The Spencers decided to invoke their rights under Section 1988.

They brought this action.

Federal courts were not readily available to the Spencers because of the Eleventh Amendment, the principles of comity, and the Tax Injunction Act, so the Spencers brought their case in state court.

They obtained the declaration that the statute is unconstitutional, null and void, and of no further effect in South Carolina.

Unfortunately, the trial judge in this case refused to grant the Spencers the attorney's fees--

Byron R. White:

What kind of an action did they bring?

Henry L. Parr, Jr.:

--They brought an action under Section 1983 and under the Constitution itself.

Byron R. White:

And did they purport to bring an action under state law?

Henry L. Parr, Jr.:

They invoked Section 12-47-220.

Byron R. White:

Which is what kind of an action?

Henry L. Parr, Jr.:

It is a waiver of sovereign immunity.

I don't think it creates a cause of action itself.

Byron R. White:

But is it a refund?

Did they want a refund of taxes?

Henry L. Parr, Jr.:

Yes, Your Honor.

Byron R. White:

That's really the state's remedy, to sue for a refund, isn't it?

Henry L. Parr, Jr.:

Yes, Your Honor.

Byron R. White:

And as part of that your refund was going to be based on the unconstitutionality of the law.

Henry L. Parr, Jr.:

That is correct.

Unfortunately, the trial judge did not recognize his obligation to enforce federal law and refused to consider the Spencers' request for attorney's fees because he believed that he must follow the state law which did not provide for attorney's fees in this case.

He noted, however, that the Spencers had obtained only a tasteless victory, because he took notice of the substantial amount of work that had been devoted to the case and the substantial expense that the Spencers must have incurred.

There is really no question that under the Supremacy Clause, 1988 and 1983 are as much the law of the land in South Carolina state courts as they are in the federal courts.