Her epitaph might as well say, “Well behaved women seldom make history.”
Chief Justice Jean Toal has rocked the proverbial boat during her half century in public life and she’s plowed a path for women in the legal profession and beyond.
Since her tenure in the Legislature in the 1970s, where she debated a national figure on the women’s Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to her longshot selection in 1988 as the high court’s first female member, to her bruising fight last year that broke the mold on when chief justices should step down, Toal has left a lasting imprint on South Carolina.
As one of the few women attorneys in the state in the early ’70s, Toal won a federal court case that allowed women to become pages in the S.C. Senate. As a Richland County legislator, she is credited with having a key role in writing the state’s open-records law.
In the State House she fashioned herself into a floor leader on key legislation and a tough negotiator.
On the court, Toal is widely recognized for being the toughest questioner of attorneys who argue cases. She trumpets her achievement of electronic access to court records. Her 27-year tenure as a justice ends this month at the state’s mandatory retirement age of 72.
The public’s belief in her was shaken in May 2001 when she admitted to drinking then hitting a parked car in her neighborhood and driving away.
The well-behaved-women quote by a Harvard historian was cited in 2001 by then College of Charleston president Alex Sanders, after Toal’s hit-and-run admission.
“Any further explanation is superfluous,” Sanders said of her history-making life.