SC Supreme Court Chief Justice Keeps the Ladder Down for other Women

By Carolyn Click and Dawn Hinshaw
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, re-elected to the state’s top judicial position this week at age 70, remains a powerful mentor to women several generations removed and in fields as diverse as law, advertising and sports.

Toal on Wednesday defeated longtime colleague Costa Pleicones, an associate justice who has served alongside Toal since 2000, when she made history as the state’s first female chief justice.

Her energy and enthusiasm for encouraging others is legendary.

A sterling silver lapel pin depicting a ladder — a visual reminder of Toal’s admonition to “keep the ladder down” for others — is worn by members of the 20-year-old S.C. Women Lawyer’s Association.

“Justice Toal has the only gold one,” said Cindy Ouzts, immediate past president.

“Her mantra was always, ‘Keep the ladder down,'” Ouzts said. “You don’t want to make it to the top and then pull up the ladder.”

Inez Tenenbaum and Toal met when Tenenbaum was a 26-year-old research director at the State House and Toal was a legislator.

Toal relied on her research, let her know she was doing good work and encouraged her to go to law school.

“She treated me like I was every bit as smart as she was,” said Tenenbaum, who recently returned to Columbia after leading the Consumer Product Safety Commission for the Obama administration.

Toal’s delight in encouraging young women was apparent when USC women’s basketball Coach Dawn Staley decided to restore a player mentoring program showing players “life outside of basketball.” The program was begun by Staley’s predecessor, Susan Walvius.

When Toal, an avid Gamecock fan, was asked to participate again, Staley said she quickly agreed.

“She’s a fireball,” the coach said. “She just rejuvenates you. She has so much energy; she makes you want to tackle life as she has tackled it.”

Each year when one group of law clerks finishes their work at the S.C. Supreme Court and a new group gets to work, Toal buys gifts and invites them over to her house — for a lesson in making good biscuits, said Joan Assey, director of information technology for the S.C. Judicial Department.

“She’s won blue ribbons at the fair, and this is her goal: She wants to get the sweepstakes award, the grand prize.”

In a more traditional method of mentoring, Toal is a regular visitor to the USC School of Law.

Her personal story — as one of a handful of female law students in the 1960s who broke professional barriers in law firms and on courts — appeals to aspiring students, said Danielle Holley-Walker, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of law.

“It resonates very, very strongly with them,” particularly women law students, said Holley-Walker. “They appreciate how far we have come in the profession in a relatively short period of time.”

Toal is frank about her struggles and triumphs, Holley-Walker said. That endears her to modern students trying to figure out how to juggle career and family.

“She definitely doesn’t sugarcoat what was a very challenging experience,” she said. But Toal’s accessibility and willingness to be hands on — whether administering the professionalism oath to first-year students or judging moot court competitions — shows students the path to achievement through hard work, she said.

“She is absolutely an original,” said Clare Morris, chief executive officer for the Clare Morris Agency, a Columbia marketing and communications business. “She has such a wonderful reputation of being warm and welcoming to younger women. ”

Morris said Toal shows up each year for the “Anita Hill Wake-up Call” party, which draws Midlands area women together to recall the 1991 U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Hill alleged that Thomas had engaged in sexual harassment toward her while the pair worked together at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Wednesday’s contested election was unprecedented in the modern era, the first time a sitting judge challenged the chief justice.

Toal will serve until 2016 when she hits the mandatory retirement age of 72, clearing the way for Pleicones, 69, to possibly secure the position for one year.

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