COLUMBIA — Former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney Jr., the first African-American to serve in the state's highest court since Reconstruction, died Sunday. He was 86.
His career in the Palmetto State was groundbreaking.
Finney graduated from the segregated S.C. State University law school to become a civil rights lawyer representing thousands of defendants, including the Friendship Nine, a group of black residents who went to jail after staging a sit-in at a segregated Rock Hill lunch counter.
He was one of the first African-Americans elected to the S.C. Legislature after Reconstruction, in 1972, saying he "wanted to be part of the structure that made the decisions."
He became the state's first black circuit judge in 1976 and joined the Supreme Court nine years later, becoming the first black South Carolinian to sit on the high court since Jonathan Jasper Wright left the bench in 1877.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Finney said he had hoped his tenure would have ''a ripple effect, so that not only black children, but all children from difficult circumstances, can grow up believing they can be what they want to be," according to news reports. The event drew hundreds, including U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings and Gov. Dick Riley.
He was an associate Supreme Court justice until 1994 when he become chief justice, becoming the first African-American to hold the post. He retired in 2000.
“I am well aware that there are those these days who believe everything is out of whack,” Finney told The State newspaper in 2011. “People who face difficulties succeed if they keep the faith, and through it all, the people of South Carolina have respected the role of the judicial system and believed in it as a solution to problems.”
Finney, a native of Smithfield, Va., was raised by his father after his mother died shortly after his birth. His family came to South Carolina so his father could teach at Claflin College, where Finney would get a degree before going to law school.
He needed six years after graduating from S.C. State's law program to start his practice because the state had so few opportunities for black attorneys. He taught in Conway and waited tables in Myrtle Beach before opening a practice in Sumter, developing his reputation for working civil rights cases.
While leading the Supreme Court, he played pivotal roles in two cases in 1999 — one that ruled that all South Carolina schoolchildren were entitled to a "minimally adequate education," and another effectively ended video gambling in the state by not allowing the Legislature to have voters decide the fate of the industry.
"Chief Justice Finney was a remarkable man, and his lifetime of service is an inspiration," Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement. "He was the embodiment of the best of what we want South Carolina to be."
Finney's sons are lawyers. Chip is the 3rd Circuit solicitor, while Jerry runs a Columbia law practice. His daughter, Nikky, is an award-winning poet who teaches at the University of South Carolina. She wrote a poem read at her father's Supreme Court swearing-in.
"He is the justice man and from his waiting tables as a young lawyer for the white and the privileged to this day here he has always believed back then as boy with only a road up here as man who never looks back — the law works."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.