Kaye Hearn is second woman on state’s highest court

Kaye Hearn on Wednesday became only the second woman in state history to be elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court, joining the first woman on the court.

“I believe in patience, perseverance,” a beaming Hearn said after the vote in the General Assembly. “It was definitely worth waiting for.”

Hearn, chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals — the state’s second-highest court — tried the past two years to join the Supreme Court, only to be bypassed each time by male colleagues on the Court of Appeals.

“It’s wonderful to have a sister joining me,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who has been the sole woman on the five-member court for two decades, said after Wednesday’s vote.

Before Hearn’s election, South Carolina was among 15 states with only one female judge on their top courts, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for State Courts. Two states — Idaho and Indiana — have no women on their highest courts.

Hearn, of Conway, who made history in 2000 by becoming the first female chief judge of the Court of Appeals, replaces Supreme Court Justice John Waller of Marion, who will retire at end of this year.

“This obviously is a historic occasion, and we are very excited as a group and as an organization for Justice Hearn,” said Summerville attorney Jenny Horne, president of the S.C. Women Lawyers Association.

Hearn became unopposed when two opponents — circuit judges John Few of Greenville and Deadra Jefferson of Charleston — withdrew from the race.

Hearn’s election was delayed temporarily Wednesday when Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, made a motion during the joint legislative session to reject her nomination. Lawmakers voted 143-18 to table the motion, and Hearn was quickly elected on a voice vote.

Bright said afterward he didn’t have “any personal problems with Judge Hearn.” Rather, he said he made the motion to protest the state law limiting the number of nominated candidates for a judicial seat to three. Nominations are made by a 10-member judicial screening committee, six of whom are lawmakers.

“Basically, it’s taking control away from the full body and putting it in the hands of a few select members,” Bright said. “I just believe all qualified candidates should be on the floor for a vote.”

In the race for Waller’s seat, five candidates were found qualified, three of whom were nominated.

Toal said Wednesday she supports lifting the nominee cap, though she defended the state’s merit selection system.

Toal, who became the first woman on the court with her election in 1988 and the state’s first female chief justice in 2000, said “so much with diversity of the profession has changed” since she joined the court.

She noted that when she was first elected, no more than 10 percent of the state’s lawyers were women. Today, that figure is about 30 percent, she said, adding that about half of the population of the nation’s law schools are women.

“I think 10 years from now this won’t be an issue,” she said of the relatively low numbers of women on the bench.

Besides Hearn, lawmakers also elected two other women to the bench: Angela Taylor of Sumter to a Family Court seat and Shirley Robinson of Columbia to a seat on the Administrative Law Court.

Ralph King “Tripp” Anderson III of Columbia, who uses a wheelchair, received a rousing cheer from lawmakers after he was elected the Administrative Law Court’s chief judge.

Taylor and Robinson are black. African-American lawmakers in recent years have decried the lack of diversity in state courts, though several interviewed Wednesday said they were pleased with the latest election results.

“I’ve been a major critic,” said Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, past chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “But today, I think my colleagues should be commended.”

The state’s population of black lawyers has been estimated at 5 to 7 percent in recent years. With Wednesday’s elections, the number of black probate, administrative law, family, circuit, master-in-equity and appellate judges stands at 15, or about 8 percent of the 186 judges on those courts, state records show.

Of the total number, 56, or 30 percent, are women — about the same percentage of women lawyers in the state, records show.

“I would love to see a time when we don’t have to pay attention to how many women or minority judges are elected,” Hearn said. “We’re working toward that goal.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484.