Supreme Court “clarifies” standard of review for family court appeals

N.B. In April 2018, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a revised opinion clarifying the standard of review for procedural matters: Supreme Court clarifies standard of review on family court appeals.

The December 20, 2017 South Carolina Supreme Court opinion in Stoney v. Stoney, 421 S.C. 528, 809 S.E.2d 59 (2017) grants both parties’ petitions for a writ of certiorari, dispenses with further briefing, reverses the Court of Appeals opinion in Stoney v. Stoney, 417 S.C. 345, 790 S.E.2d 31 (Ct. App. 2016) (an opinion that took the Court of Appeals twenty months after oral argument to issue), and remands the matter back to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration. I can envision Ms. Stoney going “urrgh” in frustration as I write this.

Evidently the Supreme Court believes the Court of Appeals applied the wrong standard of review in its opinion. Noting that Lewis v. Lewis, 392 S.C. 381, 709 S.E.2d 650 (2011) articulated de novo review as the appropriate standard, the Supreme Court believed the Court of Appeals applied an abuse of discretion standard (a higher burden on the appealing party). Per the Supreme Court:

The court of appeals repeatedly referenced an “abuse of discretion” standard throughout its findings, which culminated in a reversal and remand for a new trial on numerous issues. As recognized by the parties, once the court of appeals found error in one aspect of the family court judge’s ruling, it impacted other components, creating a “domino effect.”

Given the Supreme Court’s direction to the Court of Appeals to apply a less deferential standard in reviewing the family court’s order, the Court of Appeals may possibly find even more error in Ms. Stoney’s favor than it found in its 2016 opinion. However it may be 2021 before the Court of Appeals issues its new opinion, considers one or both parties’ inevitable motions for rehearing, and for the Supreme Court to review of the new Court of Appeals opinion. Given a highly disadvantageous family court opinion, Ms. Stoney has every reason to believe that the “wheels of justice” are grinding too slowly.

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