South Carolina

Ernest Finney, pioneering SC chief justice, ‘a legitimate hero’

Justice Ernest Finney in Photos

Former S.C. Supreme Court chief justice Ernest Finney has died. Finney was the first black South Carolina chief justice since Reconstruction.
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Former S.C. Supreme Court chief justice Ernest Finney has died. Finney was the first black South Carolina chief justice since Reconstruction.

When Ernest Finney Jr. was starting out as a lawyer, he worked part time in the restaurant at Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Forest Hotel. That was how he first attended South Carolina’s state Bar Association convention.

“He attended his first bar convention as a waiter,” U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel, a friend of Finney’s, recalled Monday. “Even if you were a black attorney, you couldn’t attend the S.C. Bar convention at the time.”

Finney, who died Sunday, was remembered Monday as a groundbreaking S.C. attorney, who fought for African-American rights at the height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, was elected to the state Legislature, became the state’s first black Circuit Court judge and, ultimately, became the first black chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.

Finney passed away at his Columbia home at the age of 86, surrounded by his family.

Finney’s daughter, poet Nikky Finney, noted her father died on the night of a full moon. “I thought it was apropos, given his long and luminous life, and the light he shone on injustice and inequality.”

Daddy fought the good fight his entire life.

Daughter Nikky Finney

A Virginia native, Finney graduated from Claflin College in 1952 and S.C. State’s law school in 1954.

He started working as an educator but went on to become a lawyer, specializing in civil rights advocacy and defense.

“When he realized he could make a living as a lawyer, he worried everybody in Myrtle Beach would still see him as a teacher, so it was our blessing that he moved to Sumter,” said former state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter.

‘The most decent man I’ve ever known’

At the time, Sumter was the seat of South Carolina’s White Citizens Council, ardent opponents of integration.

In 1961, Finney represented the “Friendship Nine,” black students from Rock Hill’s Friendship College who were arrested for protesting a segregated lunch counter. The case launched the “Jail, No Bail” movement when the students opted to stay in jail rather than pay bail to what they saw as an unjust system.

More than 50 years later, Finney returned to a Rock Hill courtroom in 2015 with the surviving members of the Friendship Nine to have their convictions formally overturned.

In 1972, Finney was elected to the S.C. House, joining its Judiciary Committee. Four years later, he was elected the state’s first black Circuit Court judge and then, in 1985, the first black Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.

He rose to chief justice in 1994.

He set the standard by which we are all judged.

Former S.C. Chief Justice Joan Toal

“He was a legitimate hero in every sense of the word,” said Alex Sanders, who served with Finney in the House and, later, as a judge. “He was courageous all through his life, particularly during the civil rights era. At the same time, he took a balanced approach to all things.”

Jean Toal was in the Legislature with Finney in the 1970s, then with him again on the Supreme Court from 1994 to 2000, when she succeeded him as chief justice.

“In addition to being a great judge and lawyer, he was the most decent man I’ve ever known,” Toal said. “He set the standard by which we are all judged.

“He’ll be remembered for more than his firsts,” Toal said of Finney. “He was a brilliant man who hid his intellectual greatness with his mild, diffident manner. He was very unpretentious.”

He was a legitimate hero in every sense of the word.

Former judge and state Rep. Alex Sanders

‘I Support Finney’

Finney commanded broad respect throughout his life.

Leventis recalled that, long after Finney left the Legislature, it was common to see cars in Sumter with “I Support Finney” bumper stickers.

“Of course, he had solid backing from the black community,” Leventis said. “But, at that time, you couldn’t get elected without some backing from the white community, which he had because he was so well-respected.”

In later years, Finney was chairman of the board of trustees at his alma mater, now Claflin University.

“He was a friend and confidant and one of the university’s most treasured and beloved graduates,” said Claflin president Henry Tisdale. “Chief Justice Finney was a man of remarkable humility and a strong advocate for equality and human rights. ... He undoubtedly will be an inspiration for current and future generations of Claflinites.”

Tributes to Finney poured in Monday from both sides of the political aisle.

“His life serves as the perfect example of service and doing what is right,” said state Rep. John King, D-York, chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus, which Finney once chaired. “There will never be another Ernest Finney Jr., but we should all work to follow and live up to his example.”

“He was a legal legend and a trailblazer in the legal profession,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca. “Chief Justice Finney’s keen intellect, sharp wit and kind disposition made him one of the most well-respected jurists in South Carolina. He will be missed.”

‘Daddy fought the good fight’

In addition to his daughter Nikky, Finney is survived by his wife, Frances, and two sons. Ernest “Chip” Finney III is solicitor for the 3rd Judicial Circuit in Sumter, and Jerry Finney is an attorney in Columbia. He also is survived by five grandchildren.

“His legacy in court was a bounty, but many of us think about our legacies in terms of family,” Leventis said. “I see his legacy in his children.”

Nikky Finney said her father’s commitment to social justice was always front and center in his family life.

“He let us know that you can’t shut the door and think the world is outside. The world is inside,” Finney said. “He talked about it at the dinner table on Sunday.”

His daughter saw a continuation of her father’s fighting spirit at the end of his life, as he battled dementia.

“Daddy fought the good fight his entire life,” Nikky Finney said. “And, for the last five years, he also waged a great battle with Alzheimer’s.”

CHIEF JUSTICE ERNEST FINNEY

▪ Age: 86

▪ Family: Wife, Frances; sons, Jerry and Ernest “Chip” III; daughter, Nikky; five grandchildren

▪ Accomplishments: Chief justice, S.C. Supreme Court, 1994-2000; associate justice, 1985-1994; circuit court judge, 1976-85; member, S.C. House of Representatives, 1972-76

▪ Education: Claflin College, 1952; S.C. State University School of Law, 1954

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