When Donald Beatty becomes South Carolina’s chief judge next year, he will be just the second African-American to hold the post.
A joint session of the South Carolina House and Senate on Wednesday elected the associate state Supreme Court justice to lead the court. Beatty is now in line to take the post when current Chief Justice Costa Pleicones retires in December. None of the other four justices ran for the position, respecting Beatty’s seniority and leading to Wednesday’s unanimous vote.
“It speaks volumes about South Carolina,” Beatty told reporters on the historic nature of his win. “We are now moving in a progressive manner. We are moving forward and it’s good to see that the legislature supported this effort.”
Beatty would become just the second African-American to lead South Carolina’s judicial system and the first elected by a Republican-controlled legislature. Retired chief justice Ernest Finney led the state’s highest court from 1994-2000.
The Spartanburg native, has served on the Supreme Court since 2007, with 12 years of lower court service prior to his appointment there. Justice Beatty also served as a Spartanburg legislator in the state House of Representatives during the early 1990s. He will replace current Chief Justice Costa Pleicones in January after Pleicones reached the mandatory retirement age this year.
Some conservative lawmakers had initially sought a second candidate in the race, since Beatty is a former Democratic legislator. They felt their concerns were confirmed when Beatty criticized some of South Carolina’s elected prosecutors and solicitors in a 2013 conference. However, Beatty was the only justice to formally seek the position and won unanimously.
He said it was “wonderful” to be elected to the top seat — and that he never planned on being South Carolina’s top judge. “I thought I’d only practice law for five years, then go on and to doing something else,” he told reporters. “I’ve been doing this now for over 20 years and I love it. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.”
There are also questions about Beatty will end up taking the job. President Obama nominated him in February to a federal judgeship in South Carolina, although the U.S. Senate has not acted on that nomination. When asked Wednesday if he would take the federal job, Beatty said he “is only concerned with being Chief Justice at this time. I don’t like speculating and that has not happened, yet.”