BAMBERG - Before an audience that included two state supreme court justices, four federal judges and eight state judges, Doyet Arnold "Jack" Early was sworn in Thursday as the newest judge for the 2nd Judicial Circuit.
Judge Early's swearing-in marked the end of the Rodney Peeples era in the court circuit that includes Aiken, Barnwell and Bamberg counties.
Judge Peeples, a Hampton native who made his home in Barnwell, served on the circuit court bench for 30 years, longer than all but one judge in the history of South Carolina's judiciary.
Judge Peeples administered the oath of office to his successor and offered him a few words of advice.
"You have no friends to reward and no enemies to punish," Judge Peeples said.
The retiring judge also offered his gratitude to South Carolina's citizens for allowing him to serve so long. At times, he acknowledged, "there were a few attorneys who disagreed with me."
"Whether it was a sentence for crack cocaine or a legal issue, I can assure you that I acted in good faith," he said.
Judge Early, who has served as Bamberg County attorney for 25 years and operated the private law practice of Early and Neese, was elected to a six-year judicial term by the South Carolina Legislature in January. He will serve about half of each year as chief administrative judge for the counties within his circuit and the other half as a "roaming" judge, presiding over criminal and civil cases across the state.
Judge Early's election to the bench maintained a long tradition of state political and judicial power centered in small, largely rural Barnwell and Bamberg counties southeast of Aiken.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean H. Toal, who spoke at Thursday's ceremony, grew up near Bamberg. One of Judge Early's mentors, Barnwell native Sol Blatt Jr., was appointed to the federal bench by the Nixon administration. Judge Blatt's father was a longtime speaker of the House in South Carolina. Another former 2nd Circuit Judge, Bamberg native Julius Ness, went on to become chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Aikenite Clarke McCants unsuccessfully campaigned to become the first Aiken County judge since 1940 to serve in the 2nd Circuit. Although Aiken accounts for more than three-quarters of the circuit's case volume, four of its five judges have been from Bamberg or Barnwell counties.
Judge Early, 56, told a courtroom packed with family, friends and court officials that he fully appreciated "the awesome responsibilities" that come with his new job and pledged to live up to the tradition of his predecessors.
"I can never be a Judge Ness or a Judge Peeples," he said. "I will be Judge Early. I am different in personality, demeanor and style."
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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