Judge Don Beatty, ’74, elected to the Supreme Court of South Carolina

Thursday, May 24, 2007

SC Supreme Court Justice Don Beatty, '74 (Photo Credit: Erik Campos, The State)S.C. Court of Appeals Judge Donald W. Beatty, ’74, on Wednesday became only the third African American in South Carolina history to join the state’s highest court.

The former state representative from Spartanburg defeated two colleagues on the Court of Appeals — Chief Judge Kaye Hearn of Conway and Bruce Williams of Columbia — to win the seat of retiring S.C. Supreme Court Justice E.C. Burnett.

Beatty was elected on the third ballot by lawmakers during a joint session. In the final round, he received 84 votes — two more than the required majority — compared to 54 votes for Williams and 25 for Hearn.

Never more than four votes shy of victory in the first two ballots, Beatty won on the third try after several lawmakers who previously voted for Hearn switched their votes to him.

Beatty, 55, is the first African-American to be elected to the five-member court since Ernest Finney Jr., who retired in 2000 after six years as the state’s first black chief justice and a total of 15 years on the court. Finney later served as an interim president of SC State University.

The court’s first black member was Jonathan Jasper Wright, who served from 1870-77 during Reconstruction.

“Public service is very important to me,” said Beatty, a USC law school graduate who has been an appellate judge for four years and was a circuit judge for eight years. “My goal (on the Supreme Court) is to do the best job I can.”

One of seven children, Beatty, who served in the military and also on Spartanburg City Council in the late 1980s, said Wednesday growing up in a large family helped him to “negotiate and compromise.”

He said he starting thinking about joining the Supreme Court about six to eight months ago after being asked to run.

“It was not on top of my to-do list,” he said, smiling.

Beatty, the only African-American on the nine-member Court of Appeals, said the state needs more black judges. “We don’t have enough diversity.”

Beatty, who was sporting a button of his undergraduate alma mater, S.C. State University, was flocked by relatives and friends afterward taking pictures with him. A group of about 50 accompanied him in the House gallery.

“The Legislature spoke well today,” said his wife, Angela Beatty. “His family and I are extremely proud of him.”

Beatty said he was upset by what he described as “unprecedented” attacks against him in recent weeks by several conservative special-interest groups. Greenville-based Conservatives in Action, for example, ran a television ad last weekend in the Spartanburg area branding him as an “ultra-liberal Democrat partisan” and urging three GOP Spartanburg lawmakers to oppose him.

An influential state business association, the Business and Industry Political Education Committee, publicly threw its support behind Williams and warned it would consider how lawmakers voted in its ratings of them.

“I think this vote vindicates this Legislature,” Beatty said. “It proved (special-interest groups) can’t buy a judgeship in this state.”

Efforts to reach BIPEC officials Wednesday were unsuccessful. Conservatives In Action spokesman Taft Matney said he was disappointed by Beatty’s election.

“He had a legislative voting record that illustrated left-leaning ideas that don’t follow mainstream South Carolina,” Matney said. “There is a concern that those kinds of opinions and beliefs would spill over into judicial activism.”

As a Democratic state lawmaker from 1991-95, Beatty was instrumental in persuading Legislative Black Caucus members to join Republicans in passing a redistricting plan that gave the GOP control of the House.

Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, the current Black Caucus chairman, said Wednesday he was proud of his fellow Democratic and Republican lawmakers who withstood “an all-out attack” on Beatty by certain special-interest groups.

“We had people who voted their convictions to do the right thing to move South Carolina forward, who stood up against the pressure, the threats from right-wingers,” he said.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who attended the election, declined afterward to comment on the controversy, saying only she needed to “reflect upon what I want to say.” She said she was “delighted to have Judge Beatty join us.”

Hearn, 57, who has been on the Court of Appeals since 1995 and was elected its chief judge in 1999, said afterward she was “disappointed” with the results, adding she planned to do “some thinking and praying” about whether to run again for the Supreme Court. She added she was “offended” by the Spartanburg television ad against Beatty.

Williams, 51, who has been on the Court of Appeals since 2004 and previously served as a family court judge, said after the election that Beatty is a “fine colleague, and I’m sure he’ll do a fine job on the Supreme Court.”

He declined to discuss the influence of special-interest groups or whether he planned to run again for the Supreme Court.

Two justices, James Moore of Greenwood and John Waller of Marion, face mandatory retirement when they turn 72 over the next two years. Burnett, 65, is retiring effective Sept. 1.The last black candidate to run in a contested Supreme Court race was now-retired Court of Appeals Judge Jasper Cureton,who lost to Costa Pleicones in 2000 after four long ballots. Cureton, who attended Beatty’s election Wednesday, smiled afterward, saying, “I just commend him for pulling it off.”

Reach Rick Brundrett at (803) 771-8484 or rbrundrett@thestate.com.
Reprinted from The State

Elected Wednesday as the state’s next Supreme Court justice
Age: 54
Home: Spartanburg
Previous experience: Member, S.C. House, 1991-95; elected Circuit Court judge, 1995; elected to Court of Appeals, 2003
Family: Married, with three children
Education: S.C. State University; USC School of Law