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

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.

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.

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