When one enters the Great Hall of Middle Temple, one of the illustrious Inns of Court in London, immediately to the left is a bronze plaque that reads, “On four July 1776 the following members of the Middle Temple signed the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.”
Of the five members listed, four were South Carolinians.
Further down, the plaque highlights the seven members of Middle Temple who, in 1787, signed our new country’s Constitution. Three of those were from South Carolina.
These plaques remind us of the vital contributions South Carolina lawyers have made to our nation and the legal legacy that stretches back even before its existence.
Though South Carolina lawyers today are not trained under the tutelage of barristers at one of the Inns of Courts in London, that tradition is still strong today through the legal training provided by the University of South Carolina School of Law. The law school has educated thousands of lawyers who have left an indelible mark not only on the Palmetto State, but also on the United States and the world.
In fact, a key component of the school’s mission is, and has always been, the development of leaders. And while South Carolina Law is not lucky enough to be able to claim those founding fathers among our alumni, we are proud of the rich roster of national leaders we can count — men and women who have held high posts and made significant contributions to the laws, commerce, education, and policies of our state and nation during the school’s almost 155-year history. Among them are Richard Riley, U.S. secretary of education; David Wilkins, ambassador to Canada; Inez Tenenbaum, chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission; and John Carl West, ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Most recently in October, the United Nations World Food Programme, under the leadership of Executive Director David Beasley, class of 1983, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its “efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”
Local, state, and federal courts; the halls of the United States Congress, the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion, and the South Carolina General Assembly; and the corridors of commerce, industry, and education all have been the beneficiaries of graduates of the University of South Carolina School of Law. Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham, every member of the South Carolina Supreme Court, and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin are all graduates.
Karen J. Williams became the first woman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the first female chief judge. Justice Kaye Hearn was the first woman elected chief judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and also served a term as president of the National Council of Chief Judges. Former Chief Justice Jean H. Toal would become the first woman to serve on the South Carolina Supreme Court. Similarly, Justice Toal served as chair of the National Conference of Chief Justices. U.S. Fourth Circuit Judge William Traxler served by appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts as chair of the executive committee of the United States Judicial Conference.
During Reconstruction, South Carolina was the only Southern state university to admit and grant degrees to African American students. Among those distinguished law graduates were Francis Cardozo, the first African American to be elected to statewide office in the United States; Styles L. Hutchins, the first African American to be admitted to the Georgia Bar; and Richard Greener, the first African American professor at the University of South Carolina, as well as the first African American graduate of Harvard University.
Many of the school’s graduates have been involved in high profile cases, including Melvin Purvis who, at the dawn of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led the team of agents that would take down notorious gangsters John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and “Baby Face” Nelson.
Edna Smith Primus, the first African American woman to graduate from South Carolina Law, set a precedent before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that is still taught in professionalism courses at law schools across the country.
Judy Clarke, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is well known for taking on a series of high-profile death penalty cases, defending household names such as Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber); Susan Smith, who murdered her children; 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; Jared Lee Loughner, who opened fire in an Arizona parking lot, wounding U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers. In 2017, Clarke received the Griffin Bell Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers. In 2018, Andy Savage, class of 1975, received the same award, which recognizes “lawyers who have persevered in pursuit of an important cause despite personal danger, fear, unpopularity, opposition, or other difficulties.”
While still a law student, Vickie Eslinger, with the help of then-lawyers Jean Toal and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sued the South Carolina Senate to open the door for women to serve as pages. And almost 25 years ago, M. Malissa Burnette helped give women the right to enroll at The Citadel.
In 2014, Eslinger and Burnette would join forces with a third alumna, Nekki Shutt, in a case that made same-sex marriage legal in South Carolina.
Many graduates have served as president of prestigious national legal organizations. These include Ken Suggs, president of the American Association for Justice; Ed Mullins, Steve Morrison, David Dukes, John Cuttino, and John Kuppens, each president of The Defense Research Institute; Reece Williams and Joel Collins, both president of The American Board of Trial Advocates; Molly Craig and John T. Lay, both president of the International Association of Defense Counsel; Lanny Lambert, president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents; John Justice, president of the National District Attorneys Association; and Rosalyn Frierson-Smith, president of the National Conference of State Court Administrators.
Countless others have been leaders in the profession and have fought to uphold the principles of justice. It is a cherished legacy, and we are honored to call them our alumni.
The School of Law’s Humble Beginnings
South Carolina Law traditionally traces its roots to Monday, Oct. 7, 1867, when Alexander Cheves Haskell walked into South Carolina College’s library to teach the very first law class.
Prior to that date — and in truth, for some time afterward — legal education in South Carolina was primarily based on the apprenticeship system, in which individuals would “read” the law under the tutelage of established attorneys. Furthermore, before the Revolutionary War, more South Carolinians secured their legal education at one of England’s Inns of Court — including Middle Temple — than did lawyers from any other Colony.
So, it perhaps was not surprising that it took until 1884 for the law program finally to solidify under the guidance of Col. Joseph Daniel Pope, who himself was apprentice trained. From 1884 to 1900, Pope taught the entire law curriculum, and in 1891, pushed to establish the law program as its own department. He would be named the first dean of the School of Law.
At the time, admission standards were almost identical to those of incoming freshmen, except that law applicants had to be at least 19 years of age, and despite Pope’s protestations, they were not required to have prior college experience. It wasn’t until 1925 that all applicants were required to have completed two years of college, and the law program was expanded to its current three-year course of study.
Changing with the Times
When Reconstruction ended and the university reopened in 1880, it did so as a segregated institution, and the entire law school was composed of white males.
The first chip in that veneer came in 1916, when Claudia James Sullivan gained entry after persuading the faculty that legislation allowing women to practice law was pending. The same year she graduated, 1918, Gov. Richard I. Manning signed that bill into law. Despite her groundbreaking achievement, women remained the exception for nearly another half century, and it was not until 1947 that Sarah Leverette, the law school’s third female graduate, was hired as its first female faculty member. This year’s incoming class, however, features more female students than males, 52 to 48 percent.
Likewise, African Americans were barred entry until 1964 when the university was reintegrated. In June 1967, Jasper Cureton, later a judge on the South Carolina Court of Appeals, transferred from the law school at South Carolina State College to become the first African American graduate of South Carolina Law since Reconstruction. Another groundbreaking alumnus, I.S. Leevy Johnson, would graduate the following year and go on to become one of the first African Americans elected to the South Carolina General Assembly since Reconstruction, as well as the first African American president of the South Carolina Bar.
Demographics started to change in the 1970s, and the diversity of the student body and faculty has since continued to grow. In 2004, Burnele V. Powell became the first African American to serve as dean of the School of Law; in 2017, Chelsea Evans was named the first African American editor-in-chief of the South Carolina Law Review; and for the past few years, an average of 20 percent of the entering class identifies as non-white.
The way law school was taught also began evolving during this period. While law schools nationwide overwhelmingly used — and still use — the case method of teaching that originated at Harvard in the late 1800s, the School of Law has the distinction of having ushered in the birth of experiential learning when Judge Marcellus Whaley created the nation’s first practice court program in 1938.
In the latter part of the 20th century, South Carolina Law continued innovating legal education, becoming among the first schools in the nation to adopt a clinical program as part of its curriculum, allowing students to work with real clients on actual cases under the supervision of a faculty member. It now offers eight clinical courses that allow students to make real-life impacts on the lives of others. For example, The CHAMPS clinic works with physicians to help patients whose problems extend beyond medical issues.
The nation’s first all-volunteer Pro Bono Program, born in 1989, provides ample opportunities for students to put their legal skills into practice by working alongside practicing attorneys. The program was selected as one of President George H.W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light.
The School of Law Today
Sept. 14, 2017, marked an important date at South Carolina Law. It was the day the law school’s magnificent new home was dedicated under the leadership of then-dean Robert M. Wilcox. This new facility ushered in an even greater and more expansive future. In his dedication remarks, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito urged that we solve our problems through civil discourse. The new law school fosters civility and professionalism through a large training courtroom, as well as classrooms and group study rooms equipped with greatly enhanced technology and many options for collaborative learning. These features have proven ideal as the school transitioned into socially distanced in-person classes, as well as many online classes necessitated by COVID-19.
The outstanding facilities have been enhanced by truly committed staff and exceptional faculty who continue to offer other unique learning opportunities, including the London Maymester at Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court; and the Konduros Leadership programs. Students greatly benefit from our close ties to the National Advocacy Center, the training facility for the U.S. Department of Justice, and the university’s Rule of Law Collaborative, which works to strengthen the rule of law around the world through programs and training not only for U.S. Foreign Service officers but also for committed leaders in countries from Ukraine to Uganda. The Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough Center on Professionalism also enriches students’ experience through its mentoring efforts, as does the ability to work alongside attorneys at the school’s Children’s Law Center.
Through cutting-edge experiential learning opportunities, vibrant faculty with areas of deep expertise, outstanding and devoted alumni, and a committed staff, South Carolina Law is shaping the next generation of lawyers and leaders, inculcating them with a passion for justice and a drive to make a positive difference in our city, our state, and our nation.
William C. Hubbard, a former president of the American Bar Association, became the 14th dean of South Carolina Law on Aug. 1, 2020. Rob Schaller, director of communications at South Carolina Law, contributed to this article. This article also draws from prior historical sketches of the law school written by Dean Harry Lightsey, Jr.; Pamela Rogers Melton; Michael Mounter; and Ophelia Strickland.