South Carolina is trading its all-male Supreme Court for an all-white one

South Carolina is joining 18 other states with all-white high courts, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks diversity and other issues in court systems.

The exterior of the South Carolina Supreme Court building in Columbia, S.C. is shown in January 2023. (Photo: James Pollard/AP, file)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina is about to trade its all-male state Supreme court for an all-white one.

The General Assembly, which picks almost all state judges, is expected Wednesday to elevate Court of Appeals Judge Letitia Verdin to the high court. The white woman will take the seat of Chief Justice Don Beatty, who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 72. Beatty is Black.

Verdin is the only candidate left after two others dropped out when they realized they couldn’t get enough votes in the 170-seat Legislature. One candidate was a Black woman and the other was a white man.

“She will be an excellent Supreme Court justice. I’m glad we now have that diversity present,” said Sen. Tameika Isaac Devine, an African American Democrat who was a law school classmate of Verdin. “But we shouldn’t trade diversity. We need to take a look across the court system.”

History of diversity

Over the past 17 years — and all but seven years since 1984 — South Carolina has had a Black judge on its highest court. Either a woman or a Black man has been chief justice for all but one of the past 30 years.

Ernest Finney became the state’s first African American circuit judge since Reconstruction in 1976. Eight years later, civil rights leaders hailed his ascension to the state Supreme Court.

It showed Black people have a presence at every level of the state court system, even if sometimes Finney was invited to speak in his role as a justice at private clubs that refused to admit African Americans.

“Not only did he do the job excellently, he elevated the reputation of the court system,” said attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson, who became the first Black House member since Reconstruction in 1971 and went on to become the first Black leader of the South Carolina Bar the same year Finney joined the Supreme Court.

“He gave confidence in the system to people of color who historically — since well before Dred Scott — have had no need to feel any confidence,” Johnson added, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court‘s infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision that declared African Americans could not be citizens.

A number of Black lawyers followed Finney’s path. They, too, have been reaching retirement age. Just 13% of the judges in the trial and appellate courts are Black in a state where 27% of the population is Black. Just one judge of color, a Black man, is on the nine-judge state Court of Appeals, which is often the training ground for the Supreme Court.

“I never thought we would stop making progress, much less end up going backward,” Johnson said.

Lack of judges of color

South Carolina is joining 18 other states with all-white high courts, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks diversity and other issues in court systems.

Twelve of those states have minority populations of at least 20%, the organization reported.

Recommended Stories

But Verdin’s election will take South Carolina out of even more select company. The state Supreme Court was the only one in the country without a woman. The all-male court ruled 4-1 last year to uphold a ban on abortions starting at around six weeks after conception, before many women know they are pregnant. Beatty, the retiring chief justice, was the only vote against.

That decision came after the woman who wrote the majority opinion in a 3-2 ruling striking down a similar ban in 2023 retired because of her age. Lawmakers made minor tweaks in the law, enabling another high court review.

The court’s new chief justice promises a renewed push for more diversity on the court. But John Kittredge said only the General Assembly, where 118 of the 170 members are Republican, can ensure it happens.

Tilting conservative

General Assembly leaders have expressed concerns about the lack of diversity, although they also have expressed unhappiness with rulings on abortion, the death penalty, low bonds and lighter sentences in recent years.

Republican House Speaker Murrell Smith said this Supreme Court election will mean there are five “true, bona fide conservatives” on the court in a telephone town hall last month hosted by conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity.

A Democratic former lawmaker has led the state Supreme Court every year but one since 2000.

“So that will be a huge win for us,” Smith said according to the South Carolina Daily Gazette.

Demeaning screening

Devine doesn’t see one simple solution to making the courts more diverse. Some judges of color want to make more money in the private sector.

The senator said some also find the election process demeaning. It includes a screening that probes deep into a candidate’s background and finances, as well as having to wait around in a parking garage or just inside doorways to get a few minutes of time with legislators whose minds may already be made up.

“The system needs changing. It seems designed to humiliate people who don’t want to be humiliated,” Devine said.

Devine is happy for her law school friend Verdin, who received nearly unanimous praise for her abilities and demeanor in anonymous surveys when she signed up to run for the Supreme Court this year.

But Devine said a lot of attorneys of color don’t bother because they think the system is broken.

“This isn’t about quotas or affirmative action,” Devine said. ”This is about real people’s lives in South Carolina and about whether they have a judiciary that is fair and impartial and reflects the diversity of this state.”

SHARE THIS ARTICLE