Faith that ‘the law works’: Historical society honors Finney’s life and career | Local
The life and legacy of Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, was honored by the South Carolina Supreme Court Historical Society in April at its annual meeting.
Special presentations on Finney’s career were given by Luther Battiste, founding shareholder of Johnson, Toal & Battiste, PA, and Dr. Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina, as well as Jean H. Toal, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Finney, who died in 2017, was born March 23, 1931, in Smithfield, Virginia, to Dr. Ernest Adolphus Finney Sr. and Collen Godwin. Dr. Finney died 10 days after birth.
Finney earned a bachelor’s degree from Claflin University in 1952, and in 1954 graduated from South Carolina State College Law School. Later that year, he was admitted to practice law and made a member of the South Carolina Bar.
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Initially, he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a teacher at Conway for over five years. In 1960 he moved to Sumter and began his full-time law practice, specializing in defense and civil rights advocacy. In 1961, he defended nine black students at Friendship College in Rock Hill who were arrested after staging a sit-in at McCrory’s dime lunch counter.
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During his career, he went on to defend thousands of civil rights cases alongside his good friends and brothers, Matthew Perry and Lincoln Jenkins. He would lose most of his first rounds in South Carolina trial courts. However, he ultimately won all but two on appeal. In 1963, he was appointed chairman of the Civil Rights Advisory Commission.
Finney was elected to represent Sumter County (and part of Sumter County after the House of Representatives redistribution in 1973) in the 100th SC House of Representatives General Assembly which met from 1972 to 1975 .
His four years in the South Carolina House of Representatives were historic. Finney was the first African American to preside as a speaker pro tempore. He was an outspoken and outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Finney led a critical charge of redistribution for fair and equitable voting rights.
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He was a founding member of the Legislative Black Caucus and served as its chairman from 1972 to 1975. House Speaker Ramon Schwartz said, “I don’t know any man who has come into the halls of the General Assembly who was more quickly accepted or respected.”
On July 22, 1976, Finney was elected a circuit court judge on the 3rd Judicial Circuit. He became South Carolina’s first African-American circuit court judge since the 1870s, when federal troops were finally withdrawn from the old confederation.
In 1985, he was elected Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, replacing Julius B. Ness, who was elected Chief Justice. He became the first African American to serve on the state’s highest court in the 20th century.
On May 11, 1994, 42 years after becoming a lawyer in the state that had separate laws for African Americans, Finney was elected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, becoming the first African American to hold the position of Chief Justice in the history of the state. He served as Chief Justice until March 23, 2003, when he retired on his 69th birthday.
In 2002, he accepted another call to duty. He returned to Orangeburg to accept the position of acting president of his alma mater, South Carolina State University, where he agreed to lead the school while searching for a new leader.
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In a career that spanned six decades, Finney never lost faith that “the law works” and always remembered his mother’s great enduring sacrifice. He was quick to say, “I feel the need to try and do a little more with my life than I otherwise could have to justify my existence.
The information in this article first appeared in the June 2022 edition of The South Carolina United Methodist Advocate. The original article was written by Rev. Dr. J. Elbert Wiliams, who is the pastor of the Lamar-Ebenezer charge in The United Methodist Church.
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