'My whole life I wanted to be just like my father'

David Harwell, a retired state Supreme Court chief justice, gives a hug to Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks after her swearing-in ceremony Thursday at the Hollings Judicial Center in Charleston. She is the first Charleston woman to be appointed to the U.S. District Court of South Carolina. Richard Fields, a retired circuit judge, is at left.

Newly appointed U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks, the first woman from Charleston to hold that position, has been headed in that direction since childhood.

Her father, the late attorney Arthur Howe, was president of the Charleston Bar Association and made headlines prosecuting civil-rights cases.

"I loved the law and growing up around it," Hendricks said after she was sworn in Thursday in a Charleston courtroom. "As a child I would go down to the courthouse and watch them try cases."

She didn't do much about it until her daughter was a year old. Around 1987 she got a job as a paralegal at Holmes & Thomson, the firm on Broad Street where her father worked.

Her dad was not particularly in favor of a young mother working, she said. U.S. District Judge David Norton, a partner in the firm at the time, joked that her main job was making sure her dad always had popcorn.

Of course it was more than that, and she was hooked. She went on to law school at the University of South Carolina, graduating in 1990.

She was an assistant U.S. attorney in Charleston from 1991 to 2002. She became a U.S. magistrate in Greenville in 2002. She moved back to Charleston as a U.S. magistrate in 2011.

"My whole life I wanted to be just like my father," Hendricks said to dozens of colleagues, family and friends at the ceremony. "That was my dream. I've never been closer to realizing that dream than today."

Her dad died 10 years ago next month.

"I don't want to turn today into some kind of memoriam," she said. "But I'd be an ingrate and fool of a daughter if I stood up here today and pretended somehow like he didn't have everything to do with this moment. ... I love you, Daddy, and I'm so very grateful."

Her mother, also named Bruce (Brucie to their friends), was in the audience, outgoing and greeting everybody around her.

"Adjusted for age, she's the flat out sharpest and wildest person in the room," Hendricks said to laughter. "She still likes her steak rare and her men youthful. She is a great joy to me."

Hendricks will be based in Greenville as a federal district judge, although she will drive back to Charleston at least every other week to oversee a program she started to help drug offenders overcome their addictions and stay out of jail.

Her drug court, called the BRIDGE program, has gotten national headlines. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited earlier this year and called it a national model.

"A courtroom can both punish and heal," Hendricks said Thursday. "Judges can be both judicial and human."

Norton praised her work. "It's pretty easy to put someone in jail, but it's much, much harder to keep someone out of jail," he told the ceremony attendees.

President Obama nominated Hendricks as district judge last year. Appointments to federal judgeships are often controversial; the Senate approved her nomination 95-0 earlier this year.

Hendricks is aware that she is the first woman in Charleston to hold the position.

"I think many women do look up to other women mentors and women who will take that next step up in your career," she said after the ceremony. "I take great pleasure in mentoring and speaking with young women lawyers. I'm delighted that my own daughter has decided to follow in the family footsteps."

Her daughter, Bruce Hendricks Smith, is an attorney in Myrtle Beach.

Judge Hendricks is married to Teddy Hendricks, whom she called "the sweetest, most long-suffering partner there is" and "an absolute stalwart in my life." They also have a son, Teddy, whom she described as a venture capitalist.

Dozens of judges, lawyers and elected officials witnessed her taking the oath of office.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel recalled when Hendricks, as a magistrate, pushed for a new trial for an inmate she believed to be wrongly convicted of a home invasion and homicide. The prosecutor dropped the case, and the inmate was freed. Gergel praised her "willingness to stick her neck out to do justice."

The bells of nearby St. Michael's Church rang out as the group walked out of the courthouse. It was arranged at that moment to honor Hendricks, according to the Rev. Rob Dewey, senior chaplain with the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, who gave the invocation.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.