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  • By Samantha Popovics

Justice Kaye G. Hearn visits CCU for Constitution Day

Associate Justice Kaye G. Hearn speaking about Constitution Day in CCU's Johnson Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Samantha Popovics.

On Thursday, Sept. 16, students at Coastal Carolina University gathered at Johnson Auditorium to hear guest speaker Associate Justice Kaye G. Hearn of the South Carolina Supreme Court, commemorate the 234-year anniversary of Constitution Day.

Hearn, who is the second woman member in SC Supreme Court history, graced the stage in Coastal Carolina’s teal school colors. She began the ceremony by taking the audience to the year 1787 when the birthing of the United States Constitution, which she denotes as a “magnificent document” was signed by the 39 Founding Fathers. She reminded the audience of the segregated and sexist ideologies that the constitution derived from.

“Let us not forget for an instant that in 1787 ‘we the people’ referred to only the free white men,” Hearn said. “Black people were still held in bondage. Women were second-class citizens considered property of their husbands, and Native Americans were written off as aliens in their own land.”

Hearn who referred to South Carolina as “always coming in last, but loving,” discussed the history of the state ratifying the 19th amendment, which happened 50 years after it was amended by Congress. She mentioned once it was the 45th state to ratify the amendment the papers were then “lost for 10 years.”

She shared personal stories of breaking historical barriers as a female in the legal profession in the state, and the awakening moment in her undergraduate college career where she knew she would serve civic duty working in law.

When Hearn was a student at Bethany College in West Virginia, she attended a conference on women in Washington D.C. for the Association of Women Students Club, which she served as vice president. When signing into the conference a button was placed on her lapel with the number 59 on it.

“The 59 was to represent at the time that white women made 59 cents on the dollar compared to white men,” Hearn said. “When the enormity of that statistic sunk into me, I had a paradigm shift that eventually led me to law school.”

She began her career working as a law clerk for South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Julius B. Ness immediately upon graduating from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1977. She recalled her initial meeting with the former judge during her last year of law school in his office at the Supreme Court in Columbia, where he invited her to apply for the position through a letter in the mail.

“Well, I have a lot of problems with you,” Ness said. “First of all, you’re a girl.” In which Hearn said, “Well sir, you’re just going to have to talk to God about that.”

Hearn got the job and became his first, female law clerk and credits him as her mentor and teacher with “no doubt” in her mind that she would never have become a judge without his guidance and support.

She has since continued her legal career serving the state and practicing law in Horry County and served as a judge on the Family Court, a Chief Justice on the South Carolina Court of Appeals, and currently holds the honorary title as Associate Judge on the South Carolina Supreme Court since 2009.

Hearn wrapped up her speech with current diversified statistics for the state of South Carolina with those currently serving on the court, a reminder of how far the state has come with its battle of ratifying the 19th amendment and diversity.

“We the people now includes each of you. To further perfect our constitution, will certainly take a collective effort,” Hearn said. “The story of the United States are generations of Americans striving to make their country your country, our country, live up to the high ideals upon on which it was founded.”

Hearn discussed her journey as a woman in a highly appointed position in an interview.

What exactly does Constitution Day mean to you?

“I think it’s a day that one should really remember and celebrate more than we do. It’s always been curious to me that we celebrate the Fourth of July, the Declaration of Independence, in just such grand style, and very little is said about Constitution Day. So, it’s a very important day for me. I was happy to be asked to celebrate it tonight.”

How do you feel being the second female serving as a Justice on the South Carolina Supreme Court?

“Extremely honored. Really honored. I never thought. I grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania with plans to be a ballerina, and I ended up on the South Carolina Supreme Court, so I feel extremely blessed and proud to have done that.”

You mention aspiring to become a ballerina. What changed and inspired you to serve in the United States court system?

“I wanted to go to New York and try my luck. My parents were supportive of my dancing, I liked acting and singing too, but they wanted me to go to college first. So, I went to college, and I fell in love with history, and I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with it. That little story tonight I told of the 59, that really was a shift for me. I’d always really loved the book, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ and all that came home to me, and I thought you know if I want to make a difference, I need to be a lawyer. So, I hung up my dancing shoes for a gavel.”

Do you feel the pinning of the number 59 on your lapel during your college leadership trip that signified hourly pay as opposed to men who were making a dollar an hour was a pivotal turning point, almost like a switch?

“I do. It flipped a switch because I didn’t know that. In my world, women were equal as far as I knew. Innocent, not knowing any better. Once I realized that was a fact, I was very angry, and I wanted to do something about that. Not that I have been able to, but we all try to do our part in our own way. So yes, it was a paradigm shift that day.”

You talked a little bit this evening about your time in college and how it was the first time that we begin to see more women emerge in the field of law during the early 70s that you were new to. Did you have any political women figures that you admired during your time in college?

“You know, I really didn’t. But very recently I had the opportunity to star in a one-woman show at the Theater of the Republic where I played Governor Ann Richards, who was governor of Texas in the 90s. Now you know I was not in college then, but I was so thrilled to be able to learn so much about her. In a way, even though it happened late in my life, I still find myself bringing up her sayings and things and trying to live the kind of life that she lived. In a way, she was a mentor to me. But honestly, I didn’t have any women mentors back in the early 70s when I was in law school. There just weren’t any. So, my mentors were all men, but they were great.”

Being in your current position what advice would you give to young women in college pursuing a career in this field?

“Well, I would just say it would probably be the same advice to a young man. Work hard, get here early in the morning, do your best, and don’t burn any bridges. I think it’s so important to keep your network of friends because we’re all in this together. If you’re a member of the bar, you don’t want to get cross-wised with another member of the bar. You want to be able to have a hand reach out to help you if you need it, so you need to reach out that hand too. That old saying ‘what goes around comes around’ is very true in the profession of law. So, I would just be very mindful of who your friends are, cultivate them and I think the most important thing is to always have high integrity and honesty in what you do.”

What has been the most memorable experience so far during your term on the South Carolina Supreme Court spanning over 10 years now?

“Oh my gosh! You know there have been so many it would be hard to say. The very first case that was argued before me on the Supreme Court happened to be from Myrtle Beach and it involved the Myrtle Beach helmet law for motorcyclists. One of my closest friends was arguing it. So that was kind of like ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here on the Supreme Court and the very first case I have to decide from my hometown, with a lawyer I know very well which I had to rule against to follow the law.’ But in a way that’s memorable because it struck home.”

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