Sol Blatt Jr., a respected jurist who served on the federal bench longer than anyone else in South Carolina’s history, passed away Wednesday night at his home in Charleston. He was 94.
Colleagues remembered Blatt for his manners, stamina and a reputation for fairness. Senior U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy, also of the Charleston court, said the courthouse will not be the same without Blatt.
“His intellect was stellar and his mannerism was elegant and humble,” said Duffy, who described Blatt as part of the best of everything that goes into being a Southern gentleman.
Blatt was born in Barnwell County on Aug. 20, 1921. Though he came to Charleston after becoming a federal judge, he once said, “Part of Barnwell is always going to be in me.”
Blatt was a son of the illustrious Solomon Blatt, who presided as speaker of the South Carolina House for 33 years. People sometimes asked the younger Blatt if his famous father had cast a shadow over his life.
“Just the contrary, I’ve always felt that he brought nothing but sunshine in my life and I wouldn’t be where I am today except for him and his help,” Blatt said in a 2006 documentary by the Charleston County Bar.
Blatt’s gentlemanly demeanor in the courtroom harked back to an era when the practice of law was held in high public respect.
“It used to be a lawyer was like your doctor,” he said. “That feeling went away.”
He lamented lawyers losing the art of courtesy he learned as a young attorney, and shifting emphasis solely to winning cases. He said this created animosity among the bar.
“If you hear a lawyer brag about how many case he wins, that he’s won all his cases, that he’s got big verdicts in all the cases he has tried, that means he hasn’t tried many cases,” Blatt quipped in the Charleston County Bar documentary.
An only child, Blatt wanted to be a lawyer from his early days.
He was an athlete and outstanding scholar at Barnwell public schools. He followed his father’s example by attending the University of South Carolina. He received his A.B. degree in 1941 and his J.D. degree in 1946.
A college boxer, Blatt was Southern Conference Lightweight Champion in 1940. During the same period, he also met his future wife, USC student Carolyn Gayden.
After completing his second year of law school, Blatt entered the Navy in 1943 during the Second World War.
“Going into the service in 1943 was a big thing. It wasn’t like going to Vietnam or going in the service today,” Blatt said in a 1990 interview. “People thought it was a wonderful thing. They’d have parties for you.”
In 1942 while an officer in training, Blatt and his wife got married. They eventually had three children, Gregory, Sherry and Brian. He was preceded in death by his wife in 2004.
As the anti-submarine officer on a destroyer escort, Blatt, a lieutenant, was responsible for the ship’s radar and radio equipment as it patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, looking for German subs.
After he got out of the Navy in 1945, he finished law school and was sworn in as a member of the bar. He joined his father’s firm in 1946.
For a quarter century, Blatt practiced law in Barnwell, representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases and defendants in criminal trials.
In those days, bootlegging was more of a concern than drugs in the federal system.
“We had a great time back then,” Blatt said in 1990. “We didn’t have all the paperwork. You knew everybody you practiced with and if they’d tell you something, you didn’t need to put it in writing.”
Blatt grew up in a non-religious Jewish household, though as an adult, he joined the Episcopal Church.
His paternal grandfather was Russian-Jewish immigrant who arrived in South Carolina penniless. After arriving in Charleston, Nathan Blatt, slung a 150-pound peddler’s sack on his back and walked to Barnwell County where he later became a merchant.
Solomon Blatt, the legislator, was born in Blackville, in 1895, a son of Nathan and Mollie Blatt.
He died in 1986 at 91, the nation’s oldest lawmaker. He had served in the Statehouse for more than 53 years. He was first elected in 1933, serving as speaker from 1937 to 1947 and again from 1951 to 1973.
Critics and supporters alike often referred him as “King Solomon,” a testament to his wisdom and power. He and others from Barnwell County, most notably the late Sen. Edgar A. Brown, were known as the “Barnwell Ring.” In that era, rural counties like Barnwell wielded much more power over the levers of state government than they do now.
Soon after he started practicing law at his father’s firm, the younger Blatt began to think about being a judge. He was more interested in interacting with lawyers in court on a daily basis, rather than writing opinions.
He was appointed to the District Court in 1971 and was elevated to Chief Judge in 1986, according to the Charleston School of Law.
Jack Bass and Marilyn Thompson, co-authors of the Strom Thurmond biography “Strom,” wrote about the late U.S. senator appointing Blatt to the federal bench:
“Despite his mixed record on presidential politics, Thurmond over the years missed no opportunity to rebuild his South Carolina political base. In the early 1970s, with two vacant federal district judgeships in South Carolina, he offended state Republican leaders and puzzled South Carolina political analysts by naming Democrat, Sol Blatt Jr., to one of them instead of long-time Republican activist Welch Morrison. Judge Charles Simons, Thurmond’s friend and former law partner, suggested the Blatt appointment. Simons respected the younger Blatt’s legal ability and correctly perceived that it would win Thurmond the undying gratitude and loyalty of Solomon Blatt Sr., his old enemy. Blatt’s word meant the difference of several thousand votes, and he influenced other small-county legislators whose local machines could translate into Thurmond votes.”
The actual appointment came from President Nixon. Blatt moved from Barnwell to Charleston.
In the years that followed Bass, a history professor at College of Charleston, said Blatt, “developed a reputation for fairness, a keen knowledge of the law and moving his caseload along efficiently. And for being forthright.”
Since being appointed on July 14, 1971, Blatt had held court for most of his tenure in the first-floor courtroom of the historic federal courthouse at Meeting and Broad streets. He took senior status in 1990.
On Dec. 18, 2006, Blatt became the longest-serving federal judge in South Carolina history. To honor the milestone, U.S. District Court judges from South Carolina signed a resolution naming the veteran judge’s usual first-floor venue the “Solomon Blatt Jr. Courtroom.”
He continued to hear cases well past his mid-80s. He was an avid golfer, fisherman and a lifelong supporter of the athletic teams of his alma mater.
Blatt heard cases involving everything from involuntary sterilization to the fate of trees on S.C. Highway 61. No case consumed more of his time than the marathon school desegregation suit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund against the Charleston County School District in 1981.
In 1990, Blatt dismissed the bias suit, deeming the district as racially integrated as can be reasonably expected. The Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had sought to dismantle the county’s dual system of the Charleston County School Board and eight constituent boards, saying the setup was the result of intentionally discriminatory state legislation and administrative actions on the local level.
Frank McCann, a past president of the Charleston County Bar who got to know Blatt during decades of practice, gave him the highest praise.
“He’s a consummate gentleman,” McCann said in 2007. “He’s not better than anyone, he’s respectful to everyone. He’s a judges judge, that’s how good he is.”
Survivors include his son, Greg Blatt of Greenville; his daughter Sherry Blatt Hooper and her husband, Tee of Greenville; and his son, Brian Blatt and his wife Martha of Columbia. His grandchildren are: Molly Blatt of Charleston; Hannah Blatt of Denver, Colo.; Travis Hooper and his wife Meg of Greenville; Amy H. White and husband Marshall of Winston Salem, N.C.; and Lee Blatt and his wife Juleah of Blythewood, S.C. He is also survived by great granddaughters Ridley, Shelton, Grace. and Liza, and great grandson Hudson.
Visitation will be Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the U.S. District Courthouse in Charleston, 85 Broad St. A graveside service will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Church of the Holy Apostles, 9357 Patterson St., in Barnwell. There will be a celebration of Judge Blatt’s life from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sunday at 701 Sweetbriar Rd. in Columbia.
Memorials in his honor may be made to the Ministerial Association of the Church of the Holy Apostles, 9357 Patterson St., Barnwell, S.C., 29812, or the Solomon Blatt Scholarship Fund at the University of South Carolina, in care of University Foundations, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, or to the cause or charity of one’s choice.