- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - When South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal became a lawyer in 1968, she could argue cases before a jury, but she couldn’t be a juror.

At the end of this month, Toal finishes a full-time legal career that started months before her native state passed a law allowing women to serve on juries. Toal has gone from being the 11th woman with an active law license In South Carolina in 1968 to swearing in a hundred or more woman lawyers after the bar exam every year.

Toal has no choice but to retire. She turned 72 this year, the mandatory retirement age for state judges. Associate Justice Costa Pleicones will take over, but he only gets to be chief justice for a year before he runs into mandatory retirement. The Legislature will pick a new chief justice for 2017 in the spring.

During a recent interview, Toal didn’t want to talk much about the cases she had heard in 27 years on the high court, 15 of them as the top judge.

“We try to meet the cases we are given,” Toal said. “And as they say in baseball, my favorite sport, call them as we see them.”

But she was willing to talk about her trailblazing career, what she has done to get court records online, the time she held court in her kitchen and her plans for retirement.

___

TRAILBLAZER

It’s not too much of a stretch to say women across South Carolina owe their careers to Toal.

Toal was one of only five women at the South Carolina House when she was elected in 1975. She also was the lawyer who argued the case in the early 1970s that ended the state’s ban for women pages at the Statehouse, helped out by a young law professor named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Now she lives in a state with a woman as governor. Women run six of the state’s Cabinet agencies and are the elected top prosecutors in two judicial circuits.

“It was wonderful to be able to open that door,” Toal said. “I guess a lot of my career has been about leaving the ladder down and pulling others along.”

Victoria Eslinger won her case thanks to Toal and Ginsburg and became a page. She went on to a distinguished legal career and remains a lawyer at one of South Carolina’s most prestigious law firms.

Eslinger thanked Toal for “not pulling the ladder into the treehouse so others could climb up too” and said Toal belongs with other South Carolinians who were giants in the feminist movement like abolitionist sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke.

“She never accepted the stereotype of what women should be,” Eslinger said of Toal.

__

COURTROOM TECHNOLOGY

One of Toal’s first goals when she took over as Chief Justice in 2000 was to organize records. And she made a fateful decision to rely on the new technology of the Internet instead of mainframe computers and licensed software.

Because of her decision, the electronic court records system could easily adapt as the state and computer technology grew. In some rural counties, Toal’s teams were literally wiring the courthouse for Internet to bring the new system online.

As Toal leaves, she has one more project to complete her dream. In the next couple of years, all court documents will be filed online and be available for view.

“Electronic filing will be the crown jewel,” Toal said. “We just debuted in Clarendon County, and it is working like a charm.”

___

KITCHEN TABLE COURT

Toal set the tenor of her court just months after she became chief justice when she convinced three justices at the kitchen table of her Columbia home around 9 p.m. on a Friday to deal the final blow to a video gambling industry that had been given a tiny spark of life.

A lower court judge getting ready to retire signed an order allowing a Lowcountry video poker parlor to keep his machines running after the midnight deadline on June 30, 2000, to turn off the machine for good.

The industry spent years finding loopholes. Toal feared the decision threatened the ban the state Supreme Court had affirmed years earlier. “I worried the whole thing would start all over again,” she said.

So Pleicones joined her in her kitchen, and they got Associate Justice James Moore on the phone. The three agreed to an order that Toal wrote by hand. She drove to the Supreme Court’s downtown headquarters herself, time stamped the order and gave it directly to State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart, who personally delivered it to the video poker parlor owner in the Lowcountry before the midnight deadline.

Toal kept a framed copy of the order in her office.

___

FUTURE PLANS

Toal has agreed to be a senior judge, where she will hear cases either in trial or appellate court if the chief justice asks.

She has a third grandchild on the way in January and will play golf with her recently retired husband.

She will also continue to cheer got the University of South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball and the Atlanta Braves, even if it in all likelihood, she said, looks like they will be terrible next season.

___

Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide