COLUMBIA -- Nearly half a century after becoming a lawyer in a state with separate and often unwritten laws for his race, Ernest A. Finney Jr. is retiring this week as chief justice of South Carolina's Supreme Court.
On Thursday, his 69th birthday, he will leave the job no other black man or woman ever held. He will probably be thinking, as he often does at life's milestones, about the mother he never knew. Carlene Finney died of childbirth complications when her only baby was 10 days old, making relatives promise they'd raise him to "be somebody."
She could not have dreamed that her motherless child would "be somebody" over and over again. Or that he would almost every time be the first black to scale each of those heights since the end of Reconstruction and the brief flurry of power it gave non-whites amid the ruins of the defeated Confederacy.
He has had mixed feelings about that place in history. "I would like to be thought of as the man who did the best he could with what he had for as long as I could," he said. "All people have a responsibility to be the very best that we can be in whatever we do, and by and large, if you do that, the color of your skin becomes less and less important."
And being first was a burden at times, "an albatross," he said.
When Chief Justice Finney got his law degree from South Carolina State College, it had a faculty of five and a limited library. The state's premier law school was at the University of South Carolina, an all-white institution. It was 1954, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that signaled the beginning of the end of segregation in South Carolina.
There were only five black lawyers in the state then, and black people couldn't serve on juries. To make ends meet, the struggling young lawyer taught school. He also waited tables at the Ocean Forest Hotel in Conway, where one group he served was the South Carolina Bar -- a group he could not join because of his race.
Years later he would be one of its most distinguished members -- one of the first four blacks elected to the Legislature since Reconstruction, the state's first black circuit judge, first black since Reconstruction on the state's high court and first ever to lead it.
Wondering what his mother would have thought had she lived is one of the few things that can make the dignified grown man cry.
Looking back last week at the day he was sworn in five years ago, the chief justice recalled that his eyes glistened when his daughter, a published poet, read about an "ordinary, brown corduroy boy" who daydreamed of being a lawyer with "a personal sense of justice," although the odds against him were steep.
The poem acknowledged that Judge Finney's life "was not all silverized and handed down," and "he never had it made." But " no nothing human or man-made has ever destroyed or made him give up on the law," and "here you are making it/and all of us cross over with you/proud as peacocks/maybe that's what Pop Finney/maybe that's what Mama Carlene would say."
His father, Pop Finney -- Ernest Adolphus Finney Sr. -- was there that day. It had special meaning for him because he'd tried to study law in his youth, using a correspondence course, but never got to finish it. He has since died.
Chief Justice Finney has been on the Supreme Court for 15 years since he became its first black member in 108 years. During his tenure, he was the only member of the state's highest court whose opinions were based largely on legal foundations he laid himself as an aggressive civil rights attorney with Matthew Perry, who is now a federal judge. As law partners in Sumter, they had a hand in the barrier-breaking cases of some 6,000 people -- almost always losing in South Carolina courts but winning in the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge Perry always said the two of them gained a sincere appreciation for "where the underdog is coming from."
"Those were times when it was hard to get ourselves up to appear in court," Chief Justice Finney said. "I had situations where I would have a case in Sumter in the morning, another one in Orangeburg in the middle of the day and one in Florence in the afternoon, and it was hard to be up two or three times a day.
"We knew the law at the time was against us, but we never lost faith that what we perceived to be justice would prevail. When I look at how far we have come today, I have to say if there's a man who ought to be impressed with the fact that the law works, I'm that man."
He was never sorry for turning down then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy's invitation to work at the Justice Department. At the height of the civil rights movement, "I had chosen where I wanted to take my stand," he said.
For all his impact on South Carolina, it is Chief Justice Finney's adopted state. He moved here from Baltimore in 1946 when his father took a job as dean at Claflin College after working during World War II at the Pentagon -- the first place the chief justice noticed black lawyers with pocket watches, tailored suits and the respect of those around them.
Even when he became a lawyer, he never thought a black person would sit on the state Supreme Court in his lifetime, much less lead it.
In his five years as chief justice, he has concentrated on increasing the number of state court judges and the pay they receive. He is leaving the judicial system, he says, "in sound shape, but in need of additional funding."
He has recommended the creation of a special drug court to relieve family courts and circuit courts of the staggering number of cases they handle involving drugs. "If the Legislature implements a drug court and doesn't cut too many corners doing it, if the legislature selects people who understand the concept and are prepared to work with it, it will aid tremendously with the backlog in other courts," he said.
The chief justice said he also has tremendous hope that new reforms in magistrate courts will improve the quality of justice they dispense. The changes increase the jurisdiction of those courts and require higher standards, including education, of magistrates.
Chief Justice Finney said he hasn't had time to think what he'll do next but is open to suggestions that "won't require me to meet a mule every day." He wants to spend more time with his wife, the former Frances Davenport, and family -- two sons, Jerry and Ernest III, nicknamed "Chip," who are lawyers in South Carolina, and a daughter, Lynn Carroll, nicknamed "Nikky," who writes and teaches in Kentucky. He wants to visit grandchildren.
One big possibility is working with students in some way -- partly because he likes young people and partly because he finds interplay with students "rewarding and challenging."
"We need to do what we can for them," he said. "They'll be running the world when we are gone."
The state capital is rife with speculation that Chief Justice Finney might run for the House of Representatives -- a job he enjoyed when he had it in the '70s, but he has been noncommittal while still on the high court.
In his two terms in the House, he was founder and first chairman of the Black Legislative Caucus and wrote the reapportionment legislation that created single-member voting districts in South Carolina.
He tends to be modest about his accomplishments and, without his judicial robes, displays wry humor and dry wit. Most places, he ducks outside to smoke but always kept an ash tray in his chambers at the high court. He has been known to sit on the floor, smoking cigarettes and sipping wine at poetry readings, which he attends when his daughter is reading her work.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.