Many in South Carolina’s legal community walked slowly past the casket of the first African-American chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court Thursday, as the body of Ernest Finney — a civil rights pioneer who became a judge — lay in repose in the rotunda of the state’s highest court.
As chief justice, Finney, who died Sunday at the age of 86, held the top job in the state’s judiciary from 1994 to 2000. The post capped a long legal career.
In the 1960s, other African-American lawyers were “dumbfounded” that Finney never lost a case, defending sit-in protestors, before the state Supreme Court, said Hemphill Pride, a Columbia attorney who worked alongside Finney on civil rights cases.
“That shows his ability as a lawyer and an advocate,” Pride said.
Columbia attorney Dwight Drake said he saw the same qualities when Finney was elected to the S.C. Legislature in 1972, when Drake was working in the administration of Gov. John West.
“There were legislators who didn’t welcome him,” Drake said. “But that didn’t limit his effectiveness. He was so hard working and prepared, even those lawmakers who wouldn’t welcome African-Americans to the Legislature respected and liked him.”
In 1976, Finney was elected to the bench, becoming the first African-American judge on a S.C. Circuit Court, starting a 24-year career as a judge.
“His legacy will be that he fought for civil rights and, from the bench, he could see that civil rights law was fairly administered,” said former state Rep. James Felder, from Finney’s adopted home town of Sumter.
Jasmine Wyman was one of the younger attorneys in the Supreme Court’s rotunda Thursday. Wyman never had a chance to practice before Finney but respected his trailblazing impact on her own career.
“He paved the way for a lot of people in the legal field.”