'I have seen a lot of firsts in my time'

Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, ’68 law, became the first woman elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1988. She became chief justice in 2000 and has served as the state’s top legal official for the past 15 years, winning praise for her modernization of the state’s court records-keeping system. Toal will retire from the top job at the end of the year, giving her more time to spend with her grandchildren and more time to follow her beloved Gamecocks athletic teams. In advance of her commencement speech to graduates on Saturday (Aug. 8), we spoke with the chief justice about her memories of Carolina and her plans for the future.

When you went to law school (1965-68), there were just a few women enrolled at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Why did you choose law?

It happened very accidentally for me because women were just not a very big factor in the legal system when I came along. My senior year in college, a South Carolina trial court judge (Louis Rosen) who was the father of a dear friend of mine from Agnes Scott, talked to me about thinking about law school. He said ‘Emory has got a course in constitutional law and you kids over at Agnes Scott can take courses at Emory. And I want you to take a course in constitutional law.’ I had already decided to go to graduate school in philosophy at Michigan. He was very insistent, so I signed up for the course for one quarter of my senior year and I wasn’t in the course but a week or so and I said, ‘Oh wow, this is just wonderful.’ So I persuaded the University of Michigan to defer my admission for a year and the rest is history. That judge who had faith in me and suggested I think about the law made a whole lot of difference in how I spent my life. It just shows you that sometimes words from a mentor can really change your life.

If you had not pursued a legal career, what profession would you have liked to try?

I suppose I would have thought about teaching. Of course, I have a great passion for sports, so I might have thought about going into coaching. I played field hockey, tennis, softball, golf, etc. in my day and still love sports. I have for many years been among a group of women who have mentored our women athletes here at Carolina.

 Did you ever think you would be chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court one day?

No, no, not in any way. There were barely any women in the profession and there were no women in the judiciary at all. There were only 10 women in the active practice of law when I graduated from law school in 1968. And I could try a case to a jury then, but I could not sit on a jury. Women were not allowed to sit on juries until a woman in the House, a Republican from Greenville, shamed her male colleagues into passing an amendment to the S.C. Code of Laws to allow women to sit on juries. I was in the Legislature before any woman was elected to a statewide judicial office. Judy Mahon Bridges, whose campaign I floor-led, was elected to a Family Court judgeship in the ’70s and she was the first woman to serve as a judge. The first woman to be a circuit judge was elected the day I was elected to the Supreme Court. And then when I was elected chief justice of this court, Kaye Hearn, who is now on this court was elected as the first woman to serve as chief judge on the Court of Appeals. So I have seen a lot of firsts in my time and the profession has changed dramatically. I would never have had any thought of all this as a law student.

How did being just one of two or three women in law school prepare you for being just one of two or three women in the Statehouse and then the only woman on the Supreme Court?

My acceptance by my classmates certainly gave me a lot of confidence to weather what were some old-fashioned attitudes when I got into practice. It’s a really good illustration of what happens when you form these lifelong relationships at Carolina and how much that can impact what you do. We all networked, remained close to each other. We were very serious as law students about what we would in leadership positions. I think perhaps the combination of the times. The Vietnam War was at its height. Almost all of the law students were men and they either had served in the armed services, as my husband had when he was drafted his senior year at Yale and went in for four years before he came to law school, or they had deferments so they could attend law school. So the times were serious times. It was also at the height of the civil rights movement. So there was a lot of discussion about equal opportunity for all people. A group of us very seriously talked about politics and what we would do. We worked for candidates. We got deeply involved in local and statewide politics in South Carolina. I was one of those young people who really got involved politically. My classmates were very supportive of my involvement in political life on the same terms that they would be involved. And that was something that perhaps all women did not have. My colleagues in law school – who remain some of the dearest friends I have, including my husband – had a really different view of women’s role in society.

What are some of your specific memories of your time at Carolina?

Let me start back a little bit about Carolina. My grandmother’s house was within a block of the Carolina campus. Her house was on Pendleton Street right where the Hollings National Advocacy Center is now. When I was a little girl, I went to school at St. Peter’s school down here on Assembly Street. So I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. I would often go over there and the campus became my playground as it did for my siblings; I am one of five. And as a little girl, I’d go into the Caroliniana Library and made friends with the librarian. He would allow me to check out books like I was a student, same was true of McKissick. That campus just opened my eyes to so many things intellectually and personally that law school was kind of a capstone of a relationship with the University of South Carolina that was very enduring and very special. My grandmother’s family is German and she had cousins and one sister who still lived in Germany and when I was a little girl I would get on my bicycle and take letters that she would receive from Germany to the head of the German department at Carolina. He would translate them into English. Then she would write out when she wanted to say and I would take them back to the professor and he’d translate them into German so she could mail them. There were so many professors and university officers who were very accessible to a little girl in a very personal way. Of course, Carolina was a lot smaller then. But that Horseshoe, oh gosh, I’ve walked every inch of that so many times as a child, played hopscotch on it.

Your law school class and many future S.C. leaders in it, including you and your husband, as well as your fellow Supreme Court Justice Costa Pleicones. Is there one memory from law school that stands out?

We put on a big stump-speaking for all of the statewide candidates in the Democratic primary that year. Ten of us signed a note at the bank and borrowed the money to put this big barbecue on. It was the hit of the political season that year and the older politicians, Fritz Hollings, John West, Bob McNair, other statewide figures, they just thought we were something very special. But it really also kind of made a mark for us as young people who would be something in government. It took us years to pay that note off!

What do you count among your proudest accomplishments as an attorney?

Certainly the Eslinger case. Victoria Eslinger was a student at the law school when she was appointed as a Senate page by her senator. The clerk of the senate would not allow her to be seated as a page because she was a woman. She decided to sue. She came to me and said the ACLU had agreed to do the funding, ‘but I want a woman to represent me. Would you be willing?’ I agreed to be part of the legal team and that was with some very big trepidation in my firm. They were very concerned about my dealing with that case. And it took a while, she was out of law school and already in practice by the time that case wended its way through the legal system. I formed a friendship during that time with someone who has meant a lot to me in my career. She was a law professor at Columbia University and headed up something called the Center for the Study of Women and the Law. And I didn’t know a thing about the law as it pertains to women’s rights. I consulted with her and she helped write some of the briefs. And every time I see her, she asks about our client. Her name is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As a young law professor, she helped this young lawyer be successful in what turned out to be a very groundbreaking legal case for the rights of women.

 What do you consider your proudest accomplishment as chief justice?

Without a doubt, my signature accomplishment has been in the area of technology. We were one of the first states in the country to use an Internet-based platform to create a system of automation for court records. When I began that in the year 2000, the Internet was not much used by government or business as a platform for information dissemination and the archiving of information. Most people used big mainframe computers that were terribly expensive. I knew that we needed to move away from the paper records, but we had no money. So I persuaded Sen. Fritz Hollings to obtain a series of grants for South Carolina to become the pilot for the use of the Internet to store and make publicly available court records. And it’s taken 15 years and a lot of effort. Hollings told me, ‘Jean, I’ll advocate for this for you, but you’ve got to promise me that you’ll start with rural South Carolina’ and we never forgot that. We’re now a model for the rest of the country.

What are some of the challenges facing the court system in South Carolina?

Funding has always been very problematic for court systems. That’s not just here, but nationally. Increasingly, many courts are required by the legislative funders to rely – to a pretty significant extent – not just on regular revenue, but on fines and fees. That is a very unstable revenue source and about a third of our budget now comes from fines and fees. But I think the General Assembly has begun to understand the value of the courts not just for societal stability, but also for economic progress.

So what do you plan to do with all your time in retirement?

I have two grandchildren and a third coming. My youngest daughter and her husband, who is a post-doc professor at Carolina in Jewish studies, John Mandsager, have a little girl Ruth, who is 2, and they are expecting a second. And my oldest, and her husband, have our beloved 12-year-old grandson, Patrick. So, of course, spending more time with grandchildren, playing more golf with Bill. I will be an active senior status judge. I would certainly be very happy to fill in on this court as well as do trial-level work as assigned. Of course, I like all Carolina sports and am particularly proud of the way our basketball teams have developed. I don’t miss many home games, particularly baseball and basketball, but traveling to some of them will be fun.

Tell us one thing about you that maybe a lot of people don’t know.

I love to cook, as does most of my family, and one signature is our family biscuits, which are from a recipe from Bill’s grandfather. And when the South Carolina State Fair comes every year, Bill and I always go head-to-head with our cheese biscuits and cookies and other baked goods. My youngest Lilla, won her first blue ribbon at age 6. I’ve won some blue ribbons in my time and some reds. Bill beat me last year. Sometimes I win the family battle, sometimes I do not. Lilla has graduated to braided bread and her Challah won a ribbon last year. And we’ve even got Professor Mandsager into it and he’s exhibited his pies, which are fabulous.

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