HomeLearning CenterSC elects new state Supreme Court justice, third female justice in state history

SC elects new state Supreme Court justice, third female justice in state history

Originally published by Jessica Holdman for the SC Daily Gazette

Legislators unanimously elected Court of Appeals Judge Letitia Verdin to the South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The addition of Verdin, 53, of Greenville, means the Palmetto State is no longer the nation’s only all-male high court. She’s the third female justice in state history — following retired Chief Justice Jean Toal and retired Associate Justice Kaye Hearn.

“What a glorious day for our Supreme Court to welcome now another sister,” said Toal, who was among past and present justices in attendance for Verdin’s election.

With Verdin’s election, however, South Carolina joins 18 other states with an all-white court, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The state Supreme Court has not been all white since retiring Chief Justice Don Beatty was elected an associate justice in 2007.

Toal spoke to the importance of persuading more women and people of color to join the judiciary in the state.

“It’s a calling,” she said. “But for those of us who have chosen that route, serving the cause of justice in South Carolina, it’s rewarding and I am delighted to see people of the caliber of Letitia Verdin decide to make that their life’s work.”

Verdin fills the opening created by Beatty’s retirement. By law, judges in South Carolina must retire from full-time work by Dec. 31 of the year they turn 72. Beatty, who turned 72 in April, will retire when his term ends July 31.

Verdin — who has 15 years of experience on the bench — also is one of four justices from the Upstate on the court. Only Justice George James, who lives in Sumter, lives in a different region.

Beatty, too, is an Upstate resident. The former state legislator, who was first elected to the Circuit Court in 1995 straight from the House, hails from Spartanburg.

Of the past female justices, Toal — like Beatty — was a former member of the state House and was a practicing lawyer for 20 years, at a time when women comprised less than 1% of licensed lawyers in South Carolina. Legislators elected her to the high court in 1988 and in 2000 named her the state’s only female chief justice, serving until December 2015, when the state’s age limit for judges forced her to retire from full-time work.

Hearn served on the high court from 2009 until early 2023, after her final opinion, written for the majority, struck down the state’s first so-called “fetal heartbeat” law as violating the state constitution’s protection from unreasonable invasions of privacy.

Following her departure, the Legislature passed a new version of the law that bans abortions once an ultrasound detects cardiac activity, around the sixth week of pregnancy. The newly all-male court upheld that 4-1 last August, with Beatty the only opponent.

While it’s Beatty’s impending retirement that created the vacancy being filled by Verdin, her election is actually for the seat of Justice John Kittredge, of Greenville, once he replaces Beatty as chief justice.

Back to News