Originally created 03/20/00

Woman grabs chief role



COLUMBIA -- When Jean Hoefer Toal left the state Legislature for a seat on South Carolina's Supreme Court bench in 1988, she said goodbye to fellow lawmakers with lines from Shakespeare:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in mystery."

In the Bard's time, there wasn't much point to mentioning women, and when Ms. Toal took her tide 12 years ago, she was the first woman ever elected to the state's highest court. The next morning, a mysterious figure in a trenchcoat darted up the steps of the sedate court building and taped a pink bow to the door with a sign that read, "It's a Girl!"

The sign did not stay there long, and the perpetrator -- widely believed to be College of Charleston President Alex Sanders, then chief judge of the Court of Appeals -- was never positively identified.

But there was no question that newly elected Justice Toal was boarding a tight ship run by men. This Thursday, at age 56, she will take its helm as chief justice, making history again.

In some ways, Justice Toal's elevation was simply the natural order of things. Historically, when a chief justice has retired, the next in seniority steps forward unchallenged to fill the job. Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney Jr. announced his intended retirement 13 months before the date he chose.

Justice Toal decided to go for the job the same way she always does -- by putting it to a family vote with her husband, Bill, a Columbia attorney and former law professor, and two daughters. The vote: four thumbs up.

"The four of us are a partnership," she said. "Every big decision is made by Bill, the girls and me. So this is a tremendously proud moment for our family."

After being elected by acclamation some months after getting the family's blessings, she said, "It's a remarkable thing for me personally and professionally and for women in my profession in this state."

The absence of women on the court until 1988 was partly a matter of numbers. In 1968, when Justice Toal graduated from law school, there were only 10 women practicing law in South Carolina. Now, about 20 percent of the state's lawyers are women, and they have broken into the judiciary on several levels -- as magistrates, family court judges and circuit judges. At the same time Justice Toal was elected to head the Supreme Court, another woman, Kay Gorenflo Hearn, was chosen to head the state Court of Appeals.

Just as the tenure of retiring Chief Justice Finney signified a growing recognition that black Americans are qualified to hold South Carolina's highest offices, Justice Toal's has said the same for some other minorities that also only gradually have been admitted to power:

Women, but beyond that, working mothers. When first elected to the court, she had a child in first grade.

Roman Catholics. In a predominantly Protestant and heavily fundamentalist state, where some citizens have historically seen Catholics in high places as insidious threats, Justice Toal's faith has been an issue just once, and then briefly.

In her first bid for the high court, a screening panel in the legislature questioned whether her Catholic beliefs would affect her votes on death-penalty cases. Long opposed to capital punishment, she said she had changed her mind after seeing close at hand the grief of a family in her parish after their daughter was kidnapped and murdered.

Native Columbians. For obscure reasons, chief justices have always come from outside the capital city. Justice Toal made some enemies among court staff, who complained about her demeanor, largely, she thinks, because she lived in Columbia and came to the court every day. She told a judicial screening committee that the staff was accustomed to working with little or no supervision and disliked her admittedly not-so-gentle hands-on approach. She apologized for not being sensitive to their feelings.

That hearing in 1996 marked the first time since 1893 that a sitting Supreme Court justice had opposition for re-election. It was a humbling experience for Justice Toal, a self-styled "very aggressive hard charger," who can be disarmingly blunt -- characteristics she developed as a trial lawyer to survive and succeed in a profession dominated by men.

In intellectual debate, she tends to take no prisoners, causing attorneys who argue cases before the Supreme Court to anticipate hard questions. Colleagues say Justice Toal has a brilliant mind and an uncanny ability to find the devil in details.

She has already begun work on a project that will likely be a hallmark of her tenure as chief justice -- bringing South Carolina courts into the technological age. "I can't sit in my office and access any court record in South Carolina," she said. "Technology varies tremendously from county to county, and it is very spotty."

She envisions "a major blueprint to make justice more accessible" -- lawyers filing documents electronically and court hearings broadcast on the Internet, which also could be used for video conferencing. Appellate court decisions would be available on the Internet as well.

She has put into motion a bid process for a consulting firm to assess the judicial system's technology needs statewide and develop a plan to get every county on the same level. Justice Toal said she hopes to have some concrete information in time to begin talks this fall.

She also is considering lobbyists to persuade lawmakers that the courts deserve more than the 1 percent of the state budget they get now. And she wants to expand magistrate courts' jurisdiction to take some load off state courts that are "bursting at the seams and about to explode."

She advocates the drug courts that Chief Justice Finney has been pushing as one relief. She wants more extensive reform of magistrate courts and a way to require litigants to try to settle out of court.

Now 56, Justice Toal once said of herself, "I am not your typical Southern flower," a comment that has followed her ever since. But she has a soft side reflected in the rose gardens she tends and her intense devotion to family. She and Bill Toal have been married for more than 30 years, since they were classmates in law school. When their children were small, every morning started with "snuggle time."

The elder daughter, Jean Toal Eisen, went to work for Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., after graduating from Yale in 1993 and married a history and political science professor, Peter Eisen, last year. The younger, Lilla Patrick Toal, is a freshman at Stanford who has gotten involved with the campus radio station. Her mom was "thrilled to hear her on the Internet doing a play-by-play from the Stanford sunken diamond."

Both of the girls were interested in community theater in Columbia, which is how the chief justice-elect got into acting. Among her roles was Frances Perkins, secretary of labor for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a character in Annie.

The justice has loved baseball since she was a child, following the Chicago Cubs and Brooklyn Dodgers. But she's been a Braves fan since seeing their first exhibition game while she was a student at Agnes Scott. She's just as avid about college basketball and "really into" March madness.

A goalie on Agnes Scott's field hockey team all four years in college, Justice Toal and several other women who played varsity sports are mentors for Lady Gamecocks at the University of South Carolina. Their program is "Women Helping Women Achieve."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.