Posted in: Lawyers None, Diversity Committee Spotlight


In honor of Black History Month, the SC Bar Diversity Committee is pleased to present a spotlight series on Black Palmetto State lawyers and members of the judiciary that made an impact on our state and profession.

The Honorable Ernest A. Finney, Jr. was the first African American chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, serving in the role from December 1994 until his retirement in 2000.

Chief Justice Finney was elected as associate justice in 1985 after having served as a circuit court judge since 1976. Finney was born March 23, 1931, in Smithfield, Virginia. He received his B.A. degree from Claflin College in 1952 and his J.D. from South Carolina State College in 1954, where at the time, there were only five African American lawyers in South Carolina. 

After law school, Finney found it difficult to earn a living from legal work, so he taught in Conway and waited tables at the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, where he attended his first convention of the segregated South Carolina Bar Association, serving as a waiter.

In 1961, he opened the Ernest A. Finney, Jr. Law Office in Sumter, which later became known as Finney & Gray Law Office. He gained a reputation as an outstanding defense lawyer and civil rights advocate. One of his most notable defenses was on behalf of nine students in Rock Hill in 1961 who staged one of the first sit-ins in South Carolina. 

In 1963, he was appointed chairman of the SC Advisory Commission on Civil Rights. Nearly a decade later in 1972, he was elected to the SC House of Representatives and served from 1973 until 1976.

“I am well aware that there are those these days who believe everything is out of whack,” Finney told The State newspaper in 2011. “People who face difficulties succeed if they keep the faith, and through it all, the people of South Carolina have respected the role of the judicial system and believed in it as a solution to problems.”

Read more in this Post and Courier article published after his 2017 death and in this New York Times piece from December 2017.

Chief Justice Finney’s two sons practice law in South Carolina and his daughter is a poet and English professor who wrote and read the poem “He Never Had It Made” at his investiture. See an SC ETV video here of Nikky Finney reading the poem over a montage of photos from Chief Justice Finney’s life showcasing his impact on South Carolina.