Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney, Jr.
After graduating from law school in 1954, Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney, Jr. found it difficult to earn a living from legal work, so he supplemented his salary by teaching school and waiting tables. Ironically, the young lawyer attended his first meeting of the South Carolina Bar as a waiter serving other members of the Bar. The reason: Finney is black. At that time, blacks were not allowed membership in the state lawyers' association. Times have changed! In May 1994, the state's general assembly elected that same Ernest Finney to the position of Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, effective December of 1994, making him the first African-American Chief Justice of South Carolina since Reconstruction. Finney's qualifications are impeccable. In 1976, he won an election to become South Carolina's first black circuit judge. He has been on the state Supreme Court since 1985.
Finney was born in 1931 in Smithfield, Virginia. His mother died when he was 10 days old. He was raised by his father, Dr. Ernest A. Finnney, Sr., a dedicated educator who instilled in his young son an understanding of the importance of a good education. The family moved to Washington, DC, where the elder Finney worked as a civil training officer for the War Department. During this time, young Ernest observed that black lawyers were respected citizens who influenced the lives of many people. He decided to pursue a legal career. Finney earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Claflin College in 1952. He then enrolled in South Carolina State College's School of Law, from which he graduated in 1954. He was armed with a law degree but could not find work as a lawyer so he worked as a teacher in Conway for the next five years. Finney has always shown tremendous concern for young people. "I think one of the heartaches I have as an individual is to see so many of our young people who get turned off by the system or turn away from applying their best efforts and just waste their lives. That is tragic."
In 1960 Finney moved with his family to Sumter and devoted himself to the full-time practice of law. He gained a reputation as an outstanding defense lawyer and civil rights advocate. He defended more than 6,000 clients who had been arrested for taking part in sit-ins, freedom rides and demonstrations. Because the legal system in South Carolina protected segregation, he lost almost every case that went to trial, but won all but two on appeal to higher courts. "I have never known abject poverty, but I have known segregation in its worst form," said Finney. "I therefore believe the law is absolutely necessary to protect the rights of all citizens."
In 1963, Finney served as chairman of the South Carolina Commission on Civil Rights. After serving in the vanguard of the movement to advance the cause of racial justice, Finney was elected to the South Carolina House of Representative in 1972. He was subsequently appointed a member of the House Judiciary Committee, making him the first African-American to serve on that key committee in modern times. Finney was one of the founders of the Legislative Black Caucus and served as charter Chairperson from 1973-1975. Finney's other many accomplishments include National College of State Trial Judges, 1977; Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree, The Citadel & Johnson C. Smith University, 1995; Doctor of Humane Letters, SC State University, 1996; Doctor of Laws, Morris College, 1996; Doctorate, Clafline University; Honoree, S.C. Trial Lawyers Association, 1993; elected and qualified Judge of the Third Judicial Circuit, 1976; and elected and qualified Associate Justice, 1985. He has also studied at New York University.
Finney retired from the state Supreme Court in 2000 and was named interim president of S.C. State University in 2002.