“Madam Chief Justice” is a collection of essays about S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal’s long and extraordinary career, spanning more than four decades and including roles as a lawyer, legislator and leader of the state’s highest court.
What follows here is an edited and condensed chapter from the book, “The Sisterhood of the Ladder,” written by Columbia lawyers Betsy Van Doren Gray and Sue Erwin Harper, who have known Toal for years. It is one of 23 essays in the 189-page book published by the University of South Carolina Press.
Focusing on Toal’s successful trial-blazing and decades-long efforts to increase the numbers of women lawyers and judges in South Carolina, the chapter looks at how Toal handled adversity, when women faced daunting challenges even to be seated on state and federal juries.
Read more about Toal – who will retire as chief justice at the end of the month – in a story on page A1 in today’s edition.
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The Sisterhood of the Ladder
As trial lawyer, a successful and skilled political leader, and a highly esteemed appellate judge, Jean Toal has done more than anyone in South Carolina to open doors for women to enter the legal profession, to remain in the legal profession, to achieve success in the legal profession, and to meet the challenges of the profession.
She has been a cheerleader, a mentor, a role model and a catalyst for women lawyers. And just as she helped, encouraged and mentored women lawyers, she has expected and challenged each of those to help, encourage and mentor other women lawyers. This may be the most meaningful contribution she has given to South Carolina women.
The ‘Ladder Principle’
Gaining entry into the legal profession was not easy for women.
In 1879, less than 100 years before Jean Toal became a South Carolina lawyer, Belva Lockwood (of New York and Washington D.C.) became the first woman to gain admission to the United States Supreme Court. The next year, Lockwood became the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the Court. A century later, in 1988, Toal was elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
An article in the Journal of Supreme Court History about Lockwood’s journey in the law was entitled “Before It Was Merely Difficult: Belva Lockwood’s Life in Law and Politics.” That title could be applied aptly to Toal’s journey in the law as a woman in South Carolina.
Toal entered the profession in 1968 as one of a handful of women lawyers. She became a trial lawyer in a profession that had just started allowing women on its juries. There were no women judges, and virtually no women trial lawyers. She excelled ... and selflessly brought other women along.
Toal’s legacy of mentoring led to the creation of the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association (SCWLA) – now moving into its third decade – grounded on the principle of advancing women in the legal profession. Her abiding lesson to those women lawyers, which is now referred to as the “Ladder Principle,” is simple:
As you climb the ladder of success, do not stop to bask in the spotlight of your own success alone; do not “pull up the ladder” once you are aboard. Instead, leave it down for those who come behind you and offer them a hand in achieving the same success that you enjoy.
Toal has lived this lesson her entire career, and hundreds of women lawyers have benefited from her guidance. Moreover, she never misses an opportunity to remind them how important this is, and the importance of passing the concept on to others. As a result, hundreds of women in South Carolina and elsewhere now actively mentor other young female lawyers. The lesson is self-perpetuating.
Toal has the rare ability to turn adversity and challenge to her advantage. She was one of four women among the 200 students in her class when she started law school in 1965. Women accounted for about 4 percent of students in law schools nationwide in the 1960s. When she graduated from the University Of South Carolina School of Law in 1968, Toal entered a profession where less than 1 percent of the members of the South Carolina Bar were women. Only a few were in active practice. When she was admitted to the bar, she was only the 90th woman ever admitted.
Nationwide, the numbers were not much different. As Toal was entering law school in the 1960s, women constituted 3.5% of the profession, or about 6,348 members, according to the American Bar Foundation. In the decade after Toal entered the practice, a different story unfolded. In 1970, there were 13,000 women lawyers (4%); by 1980 that number had grown to 62,000 (12.45%). Women like Toal were instrumental in effecting that change.
In the 1970s, law progressively became a favored field for women. The number of women lawyers grew radically in the decade. By 1980, one-third of law school students were women.
While most law firms had offered Toal only legal secretarial positions, she was hired as an associate by the Greenville law firm of Haynsworth, Perry, Bryant, Marion, and Johnstone. At the time, the firm had 16 lawyers and was the largest in the state and one of the most prestigious. Federal Circuit Judge Clement Haynsworth, later nominated for the United States Supreme Court, had been a member of the firm. Toal’s husband, Bill, was a law clerk to Haynsworth. The firm had not one, but two, women partners.
The first was James Marjory Perry – “Miss Jim” – a founding partner of the firm. Admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1918, she was the first licensed female attorney in the state. She was active in the National Association of Women Lawyers and served a term as vice-president.
The other woman partner in the firm was Jean Galloway Bissell. When she joined the firm in 1958, Perry was still practicing. Bissell enjoyed a business practice, later serving as general counsel of South Carolina National Bank. In 1984 Bissell became the first South Carolina woman to serve as a federal judge when President Reagan appointed her to the federal circuit court of appeals. She served until her death in 1990.
Just as Bissell was mentored by “Miss Jim,” Toal credits Bissell as a mentor in the early days of her career.
When Toal joined the firm, she became one of only 40 women licensed to practice law in the state, and only 10 of those actively practicing. Toal undertook an office practice as support for Bissell and for the lawyers at the Haynsworth firm who had trial practices. Because women were not permitted to serve on state court juries in South Carolina, there were only two women in the state routinely trying jury cases. After passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, however, women did have the right to sit on federal juries in the state. Ironically, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond still holds the record for the longest one-person filibuster in history – 24 hours, 18 minutes – in an attempt to keep the bill from becoming law.
Shortly after Toal’s arrival at the firm in 1968, however, women were allowed to sit on state juries for the first time.
“This historic milestone created a great opportunity,” Toal has said. “Because so many men had job-related exemptions and women did not, many juries were female.” Her male litigator colleagues were eager to utilize this rare female lawyer to impress their new feminine juries.
Toal met the challenge of trial work, and flourished. Soon, her reputation as a bright, diligent and well-prepared lawyer was widespread, and she became a highly sought-after litigator.
By 1971 Jean Toal had returned to Columbia and joined the Belser, Belser and Baker law firm and began to take on more cutting-edge, civil rights cases.
She was approached by a female law student, Victoria Eslinger, who had been denied a job as a page for the South Carolina Senate because she was a woman. At the time, these prestigious jobs were reserved for male law students. The jobs paid well and generally resulted in a network of contacts for the pages. Ostensibly as justification for the otherwise blatant discrimination, the South Carolina Senate expressed concern about the reputations of potential female pages who might be asked to run errands at night to deliver documents to senators in their hotel rooms
Toal called on the Center for Study of Women, a joint venture of the Columbia and Rutgers law schools headed by law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for assistance. They filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of plaintiff Victoria Eslinger, alleging the refusal by the state Senate to hire women as pages was an unconstitutional denial on the basis of gender.
Although the district court ruled against Toal and Eslinger, they prevailed in the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Since then, countless other women, many of whom became lawyers, have served as pages in the Senate.
Toal’s practice was wide and varied: she handled civil cases and criminal cases, including murder cases and a death penalty appeal, as well as complex business transactions. She represented the Catawba Indian Tribe in what was then one of the largest eastern Indian land claims in the country. She appeared at all levels of the South Carolina state and federal courts. In many instances, she was the first female lawyer to enter an appearance in these courts.
With the assistance of the national “Win with Women ’74’” campaign, sponsored by the National Women’s Political Caucus, Toal was elected as a Democrat to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1974. Three Republican women returned to the House, and four Democratic women were elected.
Toal served in the House for 13 years, while also practicing law full-time. During much of her tenure in the legislature, she worked tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the amendment was approved by the United States Congress in 1972, it fell three states short of ratification.
Toal distinguished herself as an eloquent orator and skilled floor leader for legislation and candidates she supported. As the floor leader for the Equal Rights Amendment in South Carolina, her inspired advocacy for women’s rights is ingrained on each of those who were present in the State House the day she led the fight. Many of those present that day were the founders of SCWLA.
During those years, Toal also sponsored and fought for legislation to improve conditions for women in South Carolina, including a sex crime law, a bill expanding the application of the South Carolina Human Affairs Law and a law that established a Victim’s Compensation Program.
From her position of leadership, she was able to open doors for women to be hired as professional legal staff for the House and Senate. It is now commonplace for women to serve in legal staff positions throughout state government.
However, Toal was only one of seven women among 124 total House members in 1975, and there were no women serving in the South Carolina Senate. A woman did not serve in the Senate until 1981, when two women senators were outnumbered by 44 men. When Toal left the House in 1987, those numbers were not measurably better.
As a legislator, Toal used her considerable political skills to place women on the judiciary in South Carolina. In 1983, Toal was the floor leader a force behind the General Assembly’s election of Judy Bridges as family court judge – the first female judge in South Carolina history.
Since 1988, at least 34 women have been elected to judgeships in South Carolina’s administrative law court, family court, circuit court, court of appeals, and Supreme Court.
In 1988, Toal was elected the first female, the first Roman Catholic, and the first native Columbian to serve on the South Carolina Supreme Court. She became the first woman elected chief justice in 2000. During more than 16 years on the court, she has written more than 1,395 majority opinions and 216 concurring or dissenting opinions.
Her presence on the bench has prompted greater sensitivity by other justices to gender issues. Example: In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that demeaning sexist remarks directed toward a female litigator will not be tolerated in any court in South Carolina.
In 1995, SCWLA presented its first Jean Galloway Bissell Award for public service and participation in activities that have paved the way to success for women lawyers. Toal was the first recipient of this award.
At Toal’s swearing-in as chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, hundreds of women attended, and because the swearing-in took place in the small Supreme Court courtroom, many waited outside the courtroom to share the joy with their new “Chief.” After the oath was taken, a roar of cheers resounded from the marble halls outside of the courtroom, as South Carolina women lawyers celebrated the culmination of the career of their mentor. Instead of greeting the group of powerful governors, senators, and distinguished guests inside the courtroom, at the conclusion of the ceremony, Toal immediately joined in celebrating with the women lawyers in attendance, and posed with them on the Supreme Court steps. Her recognition of South Carolina women lawyers at a time when she might have delayed her appearance is an example of her unwavering effort to support and include women lawyers in her story/career/ascension.
Since becoming head of the court, Toal has been a pioneer in technology in the judicial system in South Carolina. She has obtained federal grants to bring courts throughout the state into the computer age. Each of the 46 county clerks of court in South Carolina now has access to Internet-based, statewide case management systems. In recognition of her achievements in this area, Toal was the keynote speaker in the fall of 2003 at the National Center for State Courts “Court Technology Conference” in Kansas City and received the Government Technology, “Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers Award.”
In 2004 the American Bar Association awarded Toal the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. Brent was the first woman lawyer in America, arriving in the colonies in 1638 and achieving much success thereafter.
Today, Chief Justice Toal continues to tackle difficult questions involving women, including domestic violence, a critical issue in a state that ranks first in the nation in the rate of women killed by men. Toal has called for the creation of a blue ribbon commission to study issues involving domestic violence and sentencing patterns for poor and minority defendants.
As a lawyer, legislator, and judge, Toal continues to counsel, advise and encourage women by word and example to show it is possible to have a successful legal career and a rewarding family life. When asked about her achievements, she is quick to point to her proudest achievement: her loving family. She married a fellow law student, William Thomas Toal, during law school in 1967. She is the proud mother of two daughters, Jean Hoefer Toal Eisen and Lilla Patrick Toal Mandsager, and is a grandmother of a grandson and a granddaughter.
Toal has seen the growth of the SCWLA, founded in 1993 by a group of women lawyers, each of whom was mentored by Jean Toal.
Today, SCWLA boasts more than 900 members.
In the 46 years since Jean Toal joined the Bar, the legal profession has undergone a sea change.
Nationally, women account for more than 47 percent of law school enrollment. Women were less than 1 percent of the South Carolina Bar when Toal became a member in 1968. Today, women constitute almost 20 percent of its membership.
As a notable South Carolina woman once put it, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Women lawyers in South Carolina have “seen” Jean Toal in high relief – as a leading trial lawyer, a devoted wife and mother, a skilled politician and an esteemed appellate judge. In her inimitable way, Toal has pushed, pulled, cajoled and challenged women to enter and to excel in the legal profession. Moreover, she has encouraged women to “pay it forward” by doing the same for those who follow them.
The impact of Jean Toal is profound, and her influence will be felt for generations to come.
“Madam Chief Justice”
Madam Chief Justice, a book of essays reflecting on the career of Chief Justice Jean Toal, is $24.99 and can be pre-ordered in print or ebook version on Amazon and Barnes & Noble web sites. It will be available at Uptown Gifts in Columbia as early as Dec. 15 and other bookstores later in the month.
It also can be purchased directly from USC Press: (800) -768-2500.