Monday, January 23, 2012

Toal’s Ladder

An Appreciation of South Carolina's Chief Justice, Jean Hoefer Toal

By Nicole Nielson

Nicole Nielson, a third year student at Albany Law School, is a member of the Albany Law Review and the student Executive Editor of the Law Review's annual State Constitutional Commentary issue. She is a Senior Editor of the Center and has previously contributed two articles.

Last spring, Albany Law School and the Albany Law Review were privileged and honored to host renowned Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal of the South Carolina Supreme Court during the Fifth Annual Judge Lawrence H. Cooke State Constitutional Commentary Symposium, Great Women, Great Chiefs.[1]During her remarks, Chief Justice Toal spoke about gender in the legal profession and described her philosophy, “Leaving the ladder down.” [2] This philosophy stands for more than helping diversify the profession—it serves as a clear reminder of her personal, professional, and judicial convictions.

Chief Justice Toal has been a part of many landmarks in expanding the legal profession, and throughout her career, she has racked up many firsts for South Carolina.She was the first woman to chair a standing committee in the South Carolina legislature, the first woman on the state’s high court, and now, the first female chief justice. Yet, these accomplishments almost did not happen. While at her undergraduate college, Chief Justice Toal’s advisors tried to dissuade her from joining the legal profession because, at that time, it was not open to women; however, she persisted.

Instead of simply accepting these accolades as the “first woman,” Chief Justice Toal often turns to those who came before her. As she noted in her Symposium remarks, women are not new to the profession. They have been practicing law, albeit in limited numbers, since before the establishment of the Republic. However, it has only been in the last half-century that women have joined the profession in critical mass.

In her own life, Chief Justice Toal credits her mostly male law school colleagues with accepting her, respecting her, and helping her enter into the profession. She took on the case of a female law student who was refused a position as a senate page because of her gender.[3] Chief Justice Toal, then a litigation attorney, reached out to the first tenured female law professor at Columbia —Ruth Bader Ginsburg—for help on the brief. Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit found that such action was a clear violation of the Equal Protection afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment.[4]

These lessons from her own life demonstrate why she feels it is incumbent on her and others to extend the same courtesies to those starting out by “leaving the ladder down.” As a reminder of this motto, Chief Justice Toal wears a pin—a wren resting on a golden ladder—on her lapel. The pin signifies the importance of supporting each other by leaving the ladder down to pull others up with us. The South Carolina Women Lawyers Association gifted her the ladder pin and affectionately dubbed it “Toal’s Ladder.”

In telling the history of women in the legal profession, Chief Justice Toal, citing the recently released Whistling Vivaldi,[5] explained that the true improvements in the profession stem from increasing diversity, but that the critical mass necessary for substantively transformative diversity does not need to be exactly correlated to proportional demographics. The more that people recognize the capacity of others, regardless of demographic profile, the more the law will reflect and appreciate diversity as a necessary asset.

Her motto also extends to the administration of justice. In this economic era, all state court systems are financially strapped but are charged with the responsibility of providing access to justice to citizens on a volume scale exponentially beyond that which the federal system provides. Given its rural populations, South Carolina, in particular, feels this challenge. The judiciary’s continued budget cuts threaten the ability to provide justice to all citizens by inhibiting access to and availability of the court systems. This proves an untenable prospect in Chief Justice Toal’s opinion.

As CEO of the state court system, she turned to technology as a solution and implemented an innovative “cloud computing” model that, through federal grant models, she integrated in every court in the state, even the most rural. As federal funding comes to an end, she works to establish a fee-for-e-filing requirement, which will sustain the system without blocking access or creating an undue burden on low income citizens.

The exceptionally successful system serves as a model for other states and has created equity for rural communities who now have the same access to courts as their urban counterparts. Most importantly, she noted, everyone can and does use it, regardless of formal education. Her technological way of “leaving the ladder down” profoundly challenges assumptions and stereotypes about rural residents’ capacity and intellect. In South Carolina, Chief Justice Toal proudly recognizes that even those with the most rudimentary education use this cloud computing technology.

Finally, her motto illustrates the role she feels that lawyers have in America’s democratic process. Chief Justice Toal served for thirteen years in the South Carolina legislature, heading the Rules Committee and Constitutional Laws Subcommittee of the House judiciary before being elected by the legislature to serve as a justice on the state Supreme Court. She has equally enjoyed her time as a legislator, litigator, and judge because the legal profession is her passion—as is evident in her enthusiasm when discussing both her experiences and the future of the profession. She credits her success to this enthusiasm, because the hard work required to participate in any and all of her varied and distinguished roles could not have been accomplished without the energy born out of an intellectual rigor and enjoyment of the law.

At the symposium, her parting plea to students and faculty was for greater involvement in the political process saying, “The scariest thing in political discourse is the lack of lawyers in public life. We're losing the lawyer's voice in the public arena.” She reminded the audience that the legal profession engages with the general public and serves to interpret and protect civil rights and obligations that are otherwise eroded by the misinterpretation or misapplication of law. Her plea called on those in the legal profession—as a duty imbued by virtue of the legal education—to understand and participate in the political process at all levels. This is the only way they can extend the ladder and the protections of freedom to all people in America.

[1] Symposium: Great Women, Great Chiefs, 74 Alb. L. Rev. 1557-1611 (2011).
[2] Jean H. Toal, Remarks, 74 Alb. L. Rev. 1583, 1589 (2011).
[3] Eslinger v. Thomas, 476 F.2d 225, 226 (4th Cir. 1973).
[4] Id. at 231.
[5] Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., 2010).