The life and legacy of Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney, former chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, was honored by the South Carolina Supreme Court Historical Society on April 27 at its Annual Meeting. Special presentations on Finney’s career were made 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, and the Honorable Jean H. Toal, former chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. 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 he was born.
Finney earned a bachelor’s degree from Claflin University in 1952, and in 1954, he graduated from the Law School at South Carolina State College. Later that year, he was admitted to practice law and became a member of the South Carolina Bar.
Initially, he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a teacher in Conway for more than five years. In 1960, he moved to Sumter and began his full-time law practice, specializing in civil rights advocacy and defense. In 1961, he defended nine black college students from Friendship College in Rock Hill who were arrested after staging a sit-in at the segregated McCrory’s five-and-dime lunch counter.
During his career, he would go 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 the South Carolina trial courts. However, he eventually won all but two on appeal. In 1963, he was appointed chairman of the Advisory Commission on Civil Rights.
Finney was elected to represent Sumter County (and part of Sumter County after the House of Representatives were re-appointed in 1973) in the 100th General Assembly of the S.C. House of Representatives that met from 1972-1975.
The four years he spent in the South Carolina House of Representatives were historic. Finney was the first African American to preside as Speaker Pro Tempore. He was a vocal and ardent opponent of the death penalty. Finney led a critical re-apportionment charge for fair and equitable voting rights. He was a charter member of the Legislative Black Caucus and served as its chairman from 1972-1975. Speaker of the House Ramon Schwartz said, “I know of no man who has come to the halls of the General Assembly who was more quickly accepted or respected.”
On July 22, 1976, Finney was elected 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 former confederacy. In 1985, he was elected as an associate justice on the South Carolina Supreme Court, replacing Julius B. Ness, who was elected chief justice. He became the first African American to sit in 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 South Carolina Supreme Court, becoming the first African American to serve as chief justice in the state’s history. He served as chief justice until March 23, 2003, when he retired on his 69th birthday.
In 2002, he accepted one more call to duty. He returned to Orangeburg to accept the position of interim president of his alma mater, South Carolina State University, where he agreed to steer the school while searching for a new leader.
In a career that spanned six decades, Finney never lost faith that “the law works” and always remembered the great enduring sacrifice of his mother. He was quick to say, “I feel a necessity to try to do a little more with my life than I might have otherwise to justify my existence.”
Information in this article first appeared in the June 2022 edition of The South Carolina United Methodist Advocate. The original article was written by the Rev. Dr. J. Elbert Wiliams, who pastors the Lamar-Ebenezer Charge in the United Methodist Church.