South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, March 2009, #4.
Master of His Domain: The Equity Court-Yesterday and Today
South Carolina LawyerMarch 2009Master of His Domain: The Equity Court-Yesterday and TodayBy H. Guyton Murrell and Reginald P. CorleyIntroduction
The equity courts of South Carolina have developed from somewhat humble origins to now handle a wide variety of civil cases. Despite the increase in both the type and volume of cases adjudicated by the equity court, many attorneys are unfamiliar with the versatility and availability of this forum. The current role of the equity court can be summarized by a scene from the 1954 movie, The Wild One. Marlon Brando portrays a biker who is asked "What are you rebelling against?" His classic response is "What've you got?" Although it is an unlikely comparison, the scene does accurately exemplify the expansive evolution of the equity court.
In South Carolina, equity courts are most commonly associated with foreclosure actions; however, the range of matters heard by masters-in-equity is actually much wider and more comprehensive. Attorneys with cases that are eligible for reference to the equity court should not overlook the benefits that adjudication in this forum can provide. An overview of the equity court's historical development and its status will provide an understanding of its importance, operation and effectiveness as an integral part of our state's judicial system today. History
As with so many other aspects of our judicial system, the court of equity developed from our English colonial heritage. Bruce Littlejohn, Littlejohn's South Carolina Judicial History 1930-2004 89 (2005). Initially, masters-in-equity were not regarded as typical judges. In Ex Parte Gray, 8 S.C.Eq. (Bail.Eq.) 77 (1830), the court held that while the commissioner in equity did have some characteristics that were similar to a judge, "he does not possess the essential characteristic of hearing and determining in all matters within the jurisdiction of the Court." In an opinion issued during the same month, the court in Hunt v. Elliott, 8 S.C.Eq (Bail.Eq.) 90 (1830), stated that in order to be a judge, one had to be "commissioned as such," have jurisdiction to hear cases, "exercise judicial authority, and possess all the attributes for enforcing his opinions or decrees." The court reasoned that since the master-in-equity was required to report to a circuit court judge, and his opinions had no authority until they were confirmed by a circuit court judge, that the master-in-equity was "nothing more than an ancillary to the judges, by performing the minor duties of the c ourt, where no legal talent or exercise of the mind is required." Id. at 1. In fact, the position of the master-in-equity was originally analogized to the office of "sheriff of the law." Houseal v. Gibbes, 8 S.C.Eq. (Bail.Eq.) 482 (1831).
The S.C. Constitution of 1868 gave birth to "the original definition of judicial power," which changed the role of the master-in-equity in the judiciary. Cole Blease Graham, Jr., The South Carolina State Constitution: A Reference Guide 103 (2007). It combined the former courts of law and the courts of equity into one court-the Court of Common Pleas. Id. This change created questions as to the role of the court of equity and the office of the master-in-equity. From the 1870s to the 1970s, this uncertainty was reflected in the numerous acts and laws that were passed and repealed regarding the role of the master-in-equity.
After the 1973 amendments to Article V, Section 1 of the S.C. Constitution, the office of the master-in-equity was actually abolished by the General Assembly in 1976. See 1976 Act No. 690 (codified at S.C. Code Ann. § 14-2-10 (1976)). However, this law was quickly repealed only 15 days after it became effective, and since 1979, the role of the master-in-equity has remained firmly established and essentially unchanged in South Carolina's Unified Judicial System. See 1979 Act No. 164 (codified as amended at S.C. Code Ann § 14-11-10 (1976, as amended)).
Overview of the equity court system today
The equity courts have become an...