Abnormal Interviews: Law Professor Stephen Spitz

Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners, and other commentators in the field. For the latest installment, we turn to law professor Stephen A. Spitz of the Charleston School of Law in Charleston, South Carolina. The interview is as follows:

1. In your article, “SUEM, Spitz’s Ultimate Equitable Maxim: In Equity, Good Guys Should Win and Bad Guys Should Lose,” you identify nine equitable principles utilized by South Carolina courts. Which of those maxims stand out in your mind as an especially important consideration for courts?

Maxims can be divided into two broad categories. The first category are those maxims that suggest guidance for courts in the absence of a clear legal answer. (For example, the maxim that equity will not suffer a wrong to be without some remedy, suggests to a Court that any real wrong should be addressed). A second category of maxims directs the Court to look closely at the litigant’s conduct. (For example, equitable relief is denied to those with “unclean hands.”) Together, these two general categories suggest that equitable principles and equitable conduct are relevant to judgments in many types of cases.

2. What is the most significant opinion (South Carolina or otherwise) to come out in the past several years that called for equitable intervention? Why?

Although I can’t necessarily reduce an answer to a single opinion, I have briefly discussed three recent cases that suggest that sometimes equity can play a meaningful role in many different areas of the law.

(1) In Matrix Fin. Servs. Corp. v. Frazer, — S.C. —, –S.E.2d–, 2010 WL 3219472 (2010), the South Carolina Supreme Court wrote a very important decision about a mortgagee’s unclean hands, concerning its engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, that has been widely discussed around the State. There was a dissenting opinion and another opinion concurring in result.

(2) Hooper v. Ebenezer Senior Servs. & Rehabilitation Ctr., 386 S.C. 108, 687 S.E.2d 29 (2009) is a decision where the South Carolina Supreme Court used the doctrine of equitable tolling to expand a statute of limitations in light of a corporation’s failure to properly list its registered agent for service with the Secretary of State. In this opinion, the Court discussed the equitable powers of a court to do fairness and to avoid grossly unfair results.

(3) A final illustration of an equity case is Horry County v. Ray, 382 S.C. 76, 674 S.E.2d 519 (Ct. App. 2009) where that Court of Appeals found the following equitable principle to be useful, “when one of two innocent parties must suffer a loss, it must fall on the party who, by incautious and misplaced confidence, has occasioned it or placed it in the power of a third party to perpetrate the fraud by which the loss has happened.”

3. What is the role of equity today in American courts?

Long ago, Aristotle defined equity as a correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality. Even today, I think that is a good definition as it highlights both the current and historical role of equity in modern American and English Courts.

4. What made you interested in starting your own blog, Equity is Swell?

It just hit me one day that I had all these student papers in my office from my equity class at the Charleston School of Law, and some of them were really excellent, truly creative papers on topics of genuine interest to South Carolina lawyers and judges. I decided if I put them on a blog that perhaps I could do a service to the students who wrote the papers as well as the bench and bar. Hence, the blog was started. Every time I teach Equity, I plan to add more student papers, power point presentations, and my syllabus in the hope that these materials may benefit judges, lawyers, and others.

5. If you could offer young lawyers beginning their careers one piece of advice, what would it be?

This sounds really silly and trite, but I keep a poem in my office that I often re-read. It contains, I personally believe, some real wisdom – for all lawyers and others, both young and old. It is only three paragraphs long, and I repeat it here:

“It Couldn’t Be Done”

By: Edgar A. Guest
Copyrighted 1921
By George Sully & Company

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried, he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
that couldn’t be done and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that”;
At least no one ever has done it;
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He starting to sign as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sign as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done” and you’ll do it.

BIOGRAPHY: Stephen A. Spitz joined the Charleston School of Law faculty in 2004 as full professor. Prior to his time at the Charleston School of Law, Professor Spitz served on the faculty at the University of South Carolina School of Law for 26 years. Professor Spitz teaches courses in remedies, property, real estate transactions and environmental law, including a seminar on the federal Superfund law. Among his publications are a case book, Real Estate Transactions: Cases and Materials (written with previous Abnormal Use interviewee Michael J. Virzi), a practice pamphlet, “Searching Land Titles in South Carolina,” and an article in The South Carolina Law Review, “SUEM, Spitz’s Ultimate Equitable Maxim: In Equity, Good Guys Should Win and Bad Guys Should Lose.” He also has written chapters in books on South Carolina water and environmental laws. Professor Spitz recently launched his own blog, Equity is Swell, in which he publishes student papers and presentations in the hopes that they may benefit South Carolina judges and lawyers.

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