Toal wins historic S.C.chief justice vote

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 6, 2014 

— Incumbent Jean Toal won re-election Wednesday as chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.

The 170 members of the S.C. General Assembly elect state judges and the five justices of the Supreme Court.

The vote was 95 to 74. One House member did not vote. The vote did not break down along party, gender, geographic or professional lines. Some lawyers voted for Toal; some voted against her.

But Toal, 70, a Democrat who in 1988 became the first woman ever on the court, had the support of 31 of 36 of the Legislature’s Black Caucus members. She also had on her side numerous Republicans, including House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and Toal’s vote-gathering lieutenant in the House, Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester.

Toal has now been on the Supreme Court 26 years, almost 14 of those as chief justice.

She is believed to be the second-longest serving chief justice – after Eugene Gary in the early 20th century – since the modern state Supreme Court was organized in 1868, according to historical records. Gary served almost 15 years as chief before dying in office in 1926.

The race was significant on several grounds:

Unsuccessful challenger Costa Pleicones, 69, said following his defeat that he intends to run for Toal’s chief justice seat when she vacates it in December 2015 – the year she turns 72. If elected, Pleicones would then serve until December 2016 – the year he turns 72.

The Legislative Black Caucus, with its 36 members, flexed its muscle by having nearly all of its members vote for Toal. African-American lawmakers thus emerged from this race poised to play a key role in electing the next chief justice. They have a keen interest in elevating the Supreme Court’s only black associate justice, Donald Beatty, 58, to the chief’s position. It is unknown whether Beatty would run against Pleicones or wait a year to run when Pleicones vacates his seat.

The election was in doubt to the end. Toal had numerous lawmakers vote against her and for Pleicones. It is rare for any incumbent judge or justice to be opposed for re-election. A sitting chief justice has not within memory been challenged by an associate justice.

As clerks called the roll of both the 46-member Senate and 124-member House in the House chambers, Toal and Pleicones sat side by side in the front row of the upstairs balcony, watching the vote. Next to them were the other three associate Supreme Court justices: Beatty, John Kittredge and Kaye Hearn.

After the vote, Toal and Pleicones shook hands, stood and hugged, and then a beaming Toal blew a kiss to the lawmakers below and waved.

Although the unusually jaunty Toal has in recent days worn a serious look on her face as she lobbied lawmakers, by Wednesday morning, she almost certainly had been informed by her lieutenants in the Legislature that she was a likely winner.

An hour before the election, after oral arguments earlier Wednesday morning in the Supreme Court courtroom, she was smiling and almost bubbly in informal remarks to a group of Orangeburg schoolchildren.

“I was at peace about it – whatever happens,” Toal told reporters later.

Pleicones told reporters that, obviously, he had hoped for a different outcome but promised a collegial relationship between him and Toal.

“We’re professional,” Pleicones said. “This changes really nothing in the professional relationship at all, nor in the personal relationship. … I’ve been sitting next to her in one capacity or another for the past 50 years.”

Pleicones, who had the support of most of the prosecutors in the state, said, “I thought it was going to be a nail-biter but it wasn’t as close as I thought.”

Toal, too, promised a good relationship.

“We’ve handled it with a great deal of affection for each other,” Toal said. “Our friendship is deep, and it won’t change because of this.”

Traditionally, the senior-most associate justice assumes the chief justice post when the chief steps down approaching or at the age of 72.

In this case, many people, including Pleicones, had thought that Toal had indicated she would retire this year, so Pleicones made preparations to run. When Toal announced, Pleicones – believing that by tradition, his time had come – decided to run. Indeed, many lawmakers, such as Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said they voted for Pleicones because they believed it was time for a change.

Toal said she had decided to run for another two years to continue her work converting the court system to the Internet and expanding a special court that deals with complex business litigation.

“There are a lot of good projects we’ll be working on,” Toal said.

A major reason Toal wound up with almost the entire Black Caucus was that its members were swayed by Toal’s long record of outreach and working for African-American and women’s rights.

Since she was a student at Dresher High School in the early 1960s, she has been an admirer of those who fought for black civil rights, including the late federal judge and civil rights lawyer Matthew Perry, whom she watched represent black protestors in court.

In the early 1970s, Toal helped represent Vickie Eslinger, then a University of South Carolina student and now a prominent Columbia lawyer, in Eslinger’s bid to become the first female page in the S.C. Senate. In the early 1970s, as an attorney, Toal won a landmark decision in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed women to be pages.

Then, in 1988, after 15 years in the S.C. House, and at the age of 44, Toal became the first woman associate justice on the state Supreme Court.

“She didn’t just break the glass ceiling – she broke the concrete ceiling,” said Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, a Black Caucus member who voted for Toal.

“We had a great sense of Jean Toal’s contribution to civil rights and social justice. That was appreciated within our caucus,” Sellers said. “Her whole life is a testament to justice.”

A candidate for lieutenant governor, Sellers diplomatically added, “The best part about the vote is we still get to keep Costa Pleicones.”

Toal won in the Senate, 27-19. In the House, 68-55. Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, a Toal supporter, was said to be out of the country and did not vote.

The Supreme Court chief justice post pays $148,350 a year. The chief justice presides over the court and is chief executive officer of the $65 million-a-year judicial system, with its hundreds of judges and magistrates.

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