For the September 2023 issue of SC Lawyer Magazine, we asked Judge Clifton Newman and Judge Jocelyn Newman to interview each other on their careers, family and what it means to have a father/daughter duo on the bench. They graciously took this project on and ended up sharing a 45-minute goldmine of stories and wisdom. Read the full interview below, or listen to it on Spotify.
Jocelyn Newman: All right, Judge Newman. Judge Clifton Newman. Let's begin the interview. This is a strange thing to interview you, instead of just talking to you. I don't know. So, I guess for the benefit of everyone else, I know the answer, but did you always want to be a lawyer when you were younger, growing up?
Clifton Newman: I can't say I always wanted to be a lawyer. I think I put in my high school scrapbook that I wanted to become a US senator, or a high-powered politician or successful businessperson.
But I think my aspiration was more toward, following in the footsteps of politicians I admired and not thinking about the law. But, I started thinking about the law while in college because when I went to college, I was majoring in business.
Then I shifted. After being in college for a couple of years, I shifted to thinking about being a lawyer and then applied to law school.
JN: OK. At what point in your legal career did you know that you wanted to become a judge? What was the moment, the pivotal time that sent you in that direction?
CN: I think my pivotal time as a lawyer when I decided I wanted to be a judge, as I practiced before judges and scrutinized their interaction with the lawyers and also the level of authority that they had over the lives of people, I thought that I would rather be in the position of making a decision than seeking to have the judge make the decision. And after constantly referring to judges as Your Honor, I think I wanted them to look at me in that way.
What do you say about it? When did you really want to think about becoming a lawyer?
JN: I did not consider becoming a lawyer until after graduating from undergrad. As you know, I graduated with a bachelor's degree in math and had really no job prospects. I was overqualified for administrative work and under qualified for everything else and when you gave me a job at your law firm, Newman and Sabb, I really got a different understanding – a more in depth comprehension of all that it means to be a lawyer, rather than just the surface level and what I knew as a child growing up. So, it wasn't until then working there after undergraduate school, that I figured I would go to law school and could be great at it.
CN: And how did you pursue that passion?
JN: I had previously thought that I would go to medical school. That's something I had decided in high school probably, maybe even before that, and had taken courses in preparation for that during undergrad. And taking the MCAT and did not do particularly well on the MCAT, and was wait listed for a number of medical schools but was never accepted. When I took the LSAT, I didn't do much preparation for it, if any at all, and scored very highly on the LSAT and so I thought that that must be a sign that I could do well in law school.
CN: I remember the trip we took to Chicago to look into [medical] schools in the Chicago area. Of course, your brother Corey was already had gone up to Chicago to attend Northwestern. But is there something special that interested you in medical school in Chicago?
JN: I mean, I love Chicago. Chicago is a great, great city. It's a beautiful city and so, I would have been thrilled to go to medical school there. It was also one of only a handful of options at that point. But I wouldn't have known it at the time, but in hindsight I can tell you that that was an uphill battle, trying to get accepted into medical school. Whereas with law school things just seemed to fall into place, it was much more natural.
What did you think about me deciding to go to law school, or Brian, or any of your children?
CN: I was pleased finally to get someone interested in following my path as opposed to going off in other directions. Like, Corey went off into math and in undergraduate school, you majored in math as well and were pretty good at it. So it was a little relief that finally I got one of the kids to want to go to law school. Of course, I had a law firm at the time and had the possibility of being able to pass the firm on. Not knowing at the time, however, that I would become a judge, but also many lawyers bring their family, their children in and it sets a good legacy within a family.
JN: Well, and I'll say that while working at that firm when I decided to go to law school, there were two people who, aside from you of course, who influenced me to move in that direction. Your friend Alex Snipe and your other friend, supporter and former employer Wade Kolb. They both sort of, I guess, educated me about the breadth of the field of law. Well, Wade more than Alex. Then Alex focused on passing the business down and staying in the same career field as one's parents, and how important that was because at the time he was having a similar situation with his daughter.
So I asked you about what led you to the bench. What did you think when I decided that I wanted to become a judge?
CN: Oh, I thought you were well suited for it. You know, becoming a judge is part aspirational and also in part being able to seize the opportunity and quite often timing is everything. In Richland County, opportunities for minority lawyers to become judges is greater than in other parts of the state historically. And I think the opportunity presented itself due to the elevation and movement of some of the other judges and the positions becoming available.
JN: How does it feel having your daughter as a colleague?
CN: That's pretty challenging having your daughter as a colleague. Challenging in the sense of you have to give up the parental mantle and trade it in for a Co-equal colleague that can present some interesting challenges at times. But on the other hand it creates some good opportunities for intellectual discussion on legal matters and professional exchange of ideas.
JN: I would agree with that.
CN: What are some of your favorite moments before becoming a judge when you were a lawyer? What did you enjoy about being a lawyer?
JN: I enjoyed meeting clients and trying cases. When I say I enjoyed meeting clients, you know, of course I did insurance defense for a considerable period of time. So, many of our clients were larger corporations and I think that's the big picture that most people see. But you know, though you may be representing Greyhound bus lines or a trucking company, the true client, the individual that is most important in those situations is often the bus driver, or you know, the truck driver. So, I absolutely enjoy traveling around the state and getting to meet all of those different people. I also really enjoyed trying cases, it was a good time. The nervous anticipation I think that people maybe sort of put off by the nerves that they have when they step into the courtroom. But I kind of like the adrenaline rush of that slight nervousness, meeting the opportunity with preparation and being able to get a good result for my clients.
CN: I enjoyed perhaps most dealing with clients as well, but from a totally opposite perspective. Being plaintiffs counsel and being a prosecutor, you know, there's certainly a difference between civil and criminal, but I was equally adept at doing both. In both instances, however, meeting people and addressing their problems at highly stressful points in their lives and helping to bring some relief. A person who has been a victim of a crime, to have them enjoy the benefits and fruits of justice being done and the civic responsibility of trying to pursue justice. Some joy and happiness, and getting the lead for the injured party was good as well.
JN: Do you ever get nervous as a judge?
CN: Not really anymore, even though I think nervousness is a good thing, because I think we all have a degree of nervous energy and that's something I have experienced throughout my legal career. But having been a judge now for 23 years, I think the nervousness has been surpassed by confidence and with confidence. Then I think the confidence overcomes the nervousness.
JN: I would agree with that, most of the time, although I still have my moments of nervousness. Obviously I've only been doing it a little more than seven years, not quite 23 yet. So there are still many things that I haven't seen and topics that I've not yet had to deal with. And so I think there is some nervous anticipation that comes with that.
CN: And I think having a degree of nervousness is actually healthy and it helps to prevent being overconfident. I think people do their best when they are sort of nervous about the challenge ahead and try to meet it with adequate preparation, and even being confident can be dangerous and in some instances particularly if you're overconfident. So, I think the proper balance is good.
JN: Absolutely, I would agree with that.
OK, I'm going to jump to the state versus Richard Alexander Murdaugh because I know that people have questions about that. How do you prepare in general for your most notable or most highly publicized cases, such as the Murdaugh case? Do you do anything different to prepare?
CN: Well, if you have a high-profile case then you are likely to add a new dimension of the case which includes having to deal with the media because the media will be involved in the case. The media can almost be considered an additional party to the case. Aside from media concerns, however, all cases are essentially the same. You're dealing with people and problems, and you're dealing with the most significant issues in the lives of the people before the court. In Alex Murdaugh where you have a person on trial for killing a spouse and a child, and in some other instances it may be a double murder, or any type of murder when there's a loss of life and you have victims and families, it requires mental preparation, and being focused on the details to try to get it right as far as the judicial management of the case and rulings during the course of the trial. Not only during the course of a trial, but also during the pretrial stage and all other phases of the cases.
How would you think you're now prepared to deal with one?
JN: Well having seen you go through it and having had some of my own high-profile cases, though not as, perhaps, widely publicized as the Murdaugh case, I think that I'll follow in your footsteps. Everything that you said. I mean, at the end of the day, all cases are important and when you're prepared and confident in your preparation, that eases some of the nerves. I mean, my plan each and every time is to go in there into the courtroom and do the best job that I can do. Be as prepared as I can be. This job of course requires you to think on your feet quite a bit, just like practicing law or litigating. So, you've got to be able to think quickly and pivot and respond to the immediate challenge before you. I think that by being as prepared as you can be, you know every day that goes by gives me a little more experience in the job and increases my level of confidence, and I think my level of preparation. So I'll be ready to meet the moment when the time comes, although I don't know that I'll have one as highly publicized as you have.
CN: And I think for me, every case, every person, every legal matter, deserves the utmost attention and focus. So, throughout my years on the bench, particularly in dealing with criminal defendants, whether they are charged with murder or theft or drugs, I think each case demands the focus and attention of a judge. There are no throw away cases, there are no throwaway people. I want every defendant who appears before me to recognize the moments in court as being some of the most important moments in their lives and I treat it as such. And as some prosecutors, or maybe even some defense attorneys might disagree with my level of involvement and focus to the fine points of the cases – challenging the parties, lawyers, defendants, victims, everyone to treat the matter as the most important matter. Because when you deal with the matters that are small, there's often something, a bigger problem hidden underneath somewhere, and if you try to get to the root of the problem early, it can prevent something more tragic later.
JN: Absolutely, I agree with all of that and really I think that applies not just for the bench, but as you said, for lawyers as well. Because those of us who spend our days in the courtroom every day can begin to lose sight of the fact that this is the most important moment in the litigants life, the witnesses life. You know, you take for granted that we see people sitting on the witness stand every day, but that's probably their first and only time ever sitting on the witness stand to be questioned before a jury before a judge. And so, we forget about their nervousness. We forget about, you know, the gravity of the moment for them. I think that it's important not just for judges to remember that, but for the attorneys as well, like you said.
CN: What’s you view of the profession today and how has it evolved, as you've seen it over in recent years?
JN: Well, that's a question that I was going to ask you. What do you think? You've been in the profession far longer than I have.
CN: Well, I think the profession has evolved. Unfortunately, not in a good way, but in my view in a bad way. In the sense of, we now see what appears to be a lack of passion for the law. I think when I became a lawyer way back in 1976, the law was a treasured profession and members of the bar, for the most part, had a full commitment to their profession as lawyers and had the utmost respect for the courts, at least they expressed it as such. The notion of the law being a jealous mistress was reality then. Now, on the other hand, I recognize that lawyers, the law has become a lot more specialized and maybe the type of lawyers that I was accustomed to dealing with over the years were for the most part trial lawyers. Now you have lawyers who rarely, if ever attend to court and lawyers who are not involved in litigation and maybe do not engage with the judges of the courts as often. I think that seems to breed a little more casualness in the interaction with lawyers and judges, and I don't think it's good for the profession.
JN: I would agree with that. I do think, though, that it's hard for me to say because I have little to compare it to, but there seems to be an increase in litigation. The number of cases that are filed, maybe because the public feels more comfortable, or because of social media and lawyer advertising, they feel that the courthouse is more accessible to the average citizen. Which is a good thing in some respects, but it can also be a bad thing because you know there are lots of lawsuits that never would have been filed before, and I think that attorneys to some extent are probably overwhelmed.
CN: And I credit the bar in the manner in which novel theories of liability and not novel legal theories are presented and are now accepted. I think the evolution of litigation sort of follows the pattern of the evolution of legislation. Legislatures throughout the country have seemingly been on a binge of passing new laws and quite often those laws are challenged and litigation is often spawned through new legislation and new laws being enacted. I think to some degree, or perhaps a great degree, the explosion in litigation has followed explosion in legislation.
JN: Well, considering the way the profession has evolved, if you could give one piece of advice for new lawyers, what would that be?
CN: If I were to give one piece of advice to new lawyers, that advice would be to dedicate yourself to the pursuit of excellence within the profession. If you are genuinely and sincerely interested in the practice of law, there are many things that one can do with a law degree. If one of those things isn't the practice of law, then focus on something else. But if you are interested in being a lawyer, and if you are committed to being a good lawyer, then remember that it requires your undivided attention. I certainly understand that there is a level of disappointment with new lawyers entering the profession and to some degree there's a higher level of depression. There are quality of life issues where the law consumes the person's time and energy, and particularly where long hours are demanded. For me, in my years of practice, I've never considered working long hours to be a bad thing because I enjoy being a lawyer and being fully engaged in the law. And I think that one of the problems is that to a great degree, many people who are lawyers are not that fully engaged in the practice of law. So, if you want to be a lawyer, be committed to the law otherwise find another way of using your JD degree.
JN: Absolutely, otherwise you do a disservice to yourself, to your clients, and to the profession in general and to the public, if you're not committed to it.
CN: So, what has been your favorite moment in your legal career thus far?
JN: OK, I think the highlight of my career so far has been becoming a judge. Having the public's trust and sitting in this position where I'm able to affect the lives of many people.
CN: And what makes you uniquely qualified to pull that off?
JN: I love the law. I love the law and I try to approach the job as a human being with human qualities. I don't want to ever be robotic, standoffish, unapproachable. I have a job to do, but I try to do it in a pleasant way. I want to be excellent at what I do, I want to get it right. I try to do that with a smile, and I always hope that people step out of the courtroom feeling heard. If they're jurors, I always tell them I hope that they are, at least educated about the process, that something positive comes from the experience in my courtroom, and I keep that in mind throughout each proceeding.
What would you consider the highlight of your career?
CN: The highlight of my career is probably my current status, being well recognized, and for the most part, well respected nationwide following being in the media so much as a result of the recent Murdaugh trial. I think that what I've always attempted to do is to explain my rulings in court in a way that everyone under the sound of my voice can understand what's happening in court and what the rulings are. Way back in law school, we were always challenged as lawyers to learn the law, learn the technicalities of the law and then be able to translate the legal jargon into everyday language for the average person. As a trial lawyer that's always a challenge, because if you're addressing lay folks on a jury, you have to be able to translate legalese into everyday language, and I try to do that. Particularly in a high-profile case, if you want the listener to be able to understand the proceedings, then you have to have the skill of communicating legal matters to ordinary lay people such that they can understand it.
Aside from the law, what's your favorite family memory?
JN: I have lots of good memories. I remember all of the vacations that we took when I was a child, and I will tie it into the law in that, I don't know that I realized at the time that you were typically working during a lot of those vacations. All I knew is that we got to go to lots of different cities and have a great time, and be on the beach, play in the sand, and be in the swimming pool. I just, I have a lot of fond memories of our childhood vacations.
What about you?
CN: Well, my favorite family memory is getting together as a family. You know, being a family of 6. Then more of an extended family as well with aunts, uncles, cousins and all, I always thoroughly enjoy family time together during times that we can enjoy each other's company. I've always enjoyed family reunions. You know, the Newman family is a family that has always been well regarded, has a storied legacy within the state of South Carolina, and learning of my family history and trying to carry it forward has always been something most treasured. Of course, another great family memory is having a family consisting of four children, all of whom took the LSAT and three of whom spent a little time in law school. Even though Corey, the oldest, decided after two weeks that law school wasn't for him. Certainly, a fond family memory was of the youngest Brian becoming a lawyer and acing the bar exam on his first go round, and being proud that every member of our family who took the bar passed on the first go round. Just thinking the other day, listening to a speaker at the bar convention speak of the time that he remembered his daughter taking the bar and being away from home and being nervous about bar results. He can remember when and where he was when those bar results came out and same here. I can remember every specific memory of bar results coming out and the last bar result was a great memory of Brian passing the bar. Those results came out during the time that I was handling a death penalty trial, but I still had that same nervousness and was so thrilled to learn that he passed the bar. He was perhaps the most all-around person in the family and he could do a lot of things very excellently, but I wasn't so sure that the law was one of them, and so I was certainly thrilled when he passed the bar in. As many of you know, we lost him earlier this year, January 3rd at the most inopportune time for all of us because it occurred, I think 20 days before we had to start the Murdaugh trial.
JN: Right. What is one thing about the Murdaugh trial or that experience for you that maybe no one knows that you're comfortable disclosing? Maybe not the case itself, but your experience in handling the case.
CN: Well, I think one thing that people would not know is that, not only have did I have some interaction with Alex Murdaugh prior to his trial but I had more interaction with his father than with him. And because I started working as an assistant solicitor in 1983, his grandfather was a solicitor and well-known fixture in the world of South Carolina prosecution during that period of time. And I had interaction with his grandfather as well, so I didn't have enough interaction with them such that it would cause me to recuse myself in the case. But it certainly put me in an awkward position to have Alex Murdaugh on trial and have to render a sentence to him. Particularly during the time that I was mourning the loss of my son.
JN: You are approaching mandatory retirement at the end of this year. How do you feel about having to retire?
CN: I think that our system where judges have to retire at a mandatory age is not a bad system. You know, I think everyone can benefit from seeing a new face from time to time. I was a solicitor for 17 years and I recall a person coming up to me after I had been a solicitor for about 12 years, then saying, well aren't we ever going to have someone else here handling these cases? So, I'd been prosecuting a number of their family members and they were ready to see a new prosecutor rather than me. And I think as I moved toward retirement from the regular day-to-day of being on the bench, it's something that I'm really excited about. I'm excited because there are new opportunities there and I can give up this daily grind of being assigned someplace to hold court. People forget to realize that in many instances, that being a judge is not a position, but being the judge is a job. A job filled with tough moments, a job in which you have to make tough decisions many times in the loneliness of your own mind.
JN: I would agree with that, and I thought you were going to ask me but you didn’t, about the loneliness on the bench.
I will say though that having you on the bench as well has helped temper that loneliness. Of course, each judge is an individual who is running their own courtroom and has to be comfortable with the decisions that they make. But knowing that I have a colleague, a friend, who is a relative, who is my father, who I can discuss the matters with and who actually has an understanding and appreciation for the feelings that I have in the moment has been very helpful to me.
CN: I will leave this position with a great amount of pride, knowing that I have a daughter there to carry on the Newman legacy on the bench. To hopefully continue to grow to a place of admiration by those who see judges and understand the difficult task that judges have.
JN: That's the hope. I've got big shoes to fill, but I'll do my best.
CN: Well, you’ll do just fine.
JN: I hope so. So, a final question from me. What’s next for you?
CN: Well, what's next for me? You have public judging and you have private judging. Private, judging through mediations and arbitrations. I have committed to senior status but working a significantly reduced load. I anticipate working only one day per week as a judge, and also doing some private judging and to take my talents elsewhere as many athletes say it. I hope to take my talents elsewhere, but also to have them remain here at the same time. Especially considering that I have some unresolved cases, involving Murdaugh and others.
JN: Any final question, final words, final anything?
CN: Oh well, what do you think about being on the cover of the bar magazine?
JN: I'm thrilled. I have read SC lawyer magazine for many years. Even before I was a lawyer, I would flip through the monthly issues and so it is an honor, it's a privilege, and I'm just excited to be sharing the cover with my dad on this journey. I don’t have enough good things to say.
CN: And well, as I travel throughout the country, people are truly amazed that there is a father and daughter judge combination in the state of South Carolina, or any place else throughout the country. Certainly in our state, I think we're the first in history. Has to be the first in history, particularly since women have not had the privilege of becoming judges except for the last 30 years or so. So for us to hold the position of being the first father, daughter judgeship in the State of South Carolina, in the history of the state, that's a legacy that will not be duplicated, certainly not being the first since we are. But it's a treasured honor that I have and I certainly enjoy the moments we share on the bench – not together – but that we share nevertheless.
JN: Absolutely! Good talk.