The Honorable Kaye Hearn: South Carolina Supreme Court Justice-Elect
By Connie Barnard
Those who know Kaye Gorenflo Hearn will tell you that the word honorable is more than just a title before her name: it is a way of life. The Conway resident’s recent election as the second woman to sit on the South Carolina Supreme Court caps a distinguished legal career which began in 1977. A judge for the last 23 years, Hearn is respected throughout the state for her integrity, intellect, likeability and desire to give back. Judge Lisa Kinon, who has known Hearn for 20 years, describes her friend and neighbor as her role model: “She sets an example not only for all women lawyers but all members of the legal profession.” Another close friend, Conway attorney Anita Floyd, echoes these thoughts: “Kaye has led by example. I believe her to be one of the leaders in our nation’s legal community. It continues to amaze me how she finds time to give back so much to the community while simultaneously excelling not just as a wife and mother, but also as a member of the highest court in our state.” Judge Hearn is also known as a funny and fun-loving friend who refuses to take herself too seriously.
The diminutive and vivacious 59 year old chose to study law at a time when few women entered the field. The Warren, Pennsylvania, native graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia where she was an academic star and campus leader. A history major with a background in theater and dance, Kaye decided law school was a natural fit for her interests and talents. However, this was 1972, and the reaction she heard over and over was, “You can probably marry a lawyer and work as his secretary.” Armed with natural drive, self-discipline learned from years of ballet and encouragement from her hard-working, supportive parents, Kaye entered the University of South Carolina School of Law, graduating fifth in the class of 1977. The predictions were partially true, however: While in law school, she actually did meet George Hearn, her husband with whom she has lived and worked for almost 30 years.
The story of Kaye’s first job interview is both hilarious and revealing. While in her last semester of law school, Kaye was invited to interview with South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Julius “Bubba” Ness regarding a coveted law clerk position. The highly respected justice was also quite a character. Ness began the interview by leaning over his desk, staring Kaye in the eye, and saying, “Miss Gorenflo, I have a lot of problems with you.” He then continued, “First of all, you’re a girl.” The stunned Kaye paused a minute, then shot back, “Well, Sir, you are going to have to talk to God about that!” Ness proceeded to list a number of complications that would arise if he hired her, including the fact that he could no longer share a room with his clerk when traveling. He then added: “People will probably think we are shacking up!” Nonetheless, Kaye won over the tough-minded Ness with her wit and fire, as well as her stellar record. She worked as Justice Ness’s law clerk for two years and over time became like a daughter to him. While Kaye worked for Judge Ness as his law clerk, her husband-to-be, George Hearn, clerked for then Chief Justice Woodrow Lewis. Ness continued to offer Kaye guidance until his death 1991.
In 1979 Kaye accepted a position as a trial lawyer with the Loris law firm, Stevens, Stevens and Thomas. She made her home in Conway and a year later married George after he too became an associate with the firm. The two attorneys worked together – Kaye in the Loris office and George in Myrtle Beach – until 1986 when Kaye had the opportunity to become Family Court Judge for the 15th Circuit comprising Horry and Georgetown Counties. Judge Ness administered the oath of office to her at the investiture in Conway. The first female judge to hold this position in Horry County (and just the third in South Carolina), Kaye thrived in the judicial arena. She served as chief administrative judge for the 15th Circuit from 1987 until1995 when she was elected to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, becoming its Chief Judge in 1999. In the midst of this, Kaye also earned a Masters (LLM) Degree from the University of Virginia’s Graduate Program for Judges and served as president of the National Council of Chief Justices of Courts of Appeal.
With all this success, it would be easy to gather that Kaye Hearn has led a charmed life. However, anyone who knows the judge will describe her as a hard-working pioneer who has earned every rung of the ladders she has climbed. There have been disappointments, both personal and professional, yet she has never lost faith in herself or her calling. When Kaye first practiced law in Horry County in the late 1970s, some men preferred to deal with her male counterparts rather than do business with her. One attorney repeatedly called her “Princess.” Nevertheless, Kaye rose through the judicial ranks, and in 2007, she offered for the South Carolina Supreme Court. In South Carolina, family court, circuit court and appellate court judges are elected by the South Carolina General Assembly. As a guide for making wise and independent choices, legislators are provided score cards, bar ratings and published opinions of each of the nominees. Kaye knew that her record could stand on itself; however, in 2007 and again in 2008, she did not garner sufficient votes to win the position. Undaunted, she tried again a third time and was easily elected this past May, the other candidates dropping out of the race early on. In retrospect, Hearn says focusing on her past attempts is the wrong approach. “You have to prove yourself like every other judicial candidate does,” she said. “If you look for discrimination, you will find it. I wanted to stay in this race, not only for me, but for all the other women lawyers out there.”
Kaye attributes her husband with helping to keep her life in balance: “George has been so supportive. Judges start out making much less income than attorneys in private practice, yet he constantly encouraged me to go for it… In every way, he has made me a better person.” Beyond the workplace, the center of their world is their beautiful red-haired daughter, Kathleen, who arrived in their lives in 1988 and is now a senior at Wofford. Another special and stabilizing influence has been Kaye’s mother who 20 years ago moved to the Hearns’ Conway home to help care for baby Kathleen. Today, at 90, she is still an integral and active part of their busy lives. For years Kaye and her mother participated together in a “banana bread ministry,” providing the homemade treat for newcomers to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where Kaye also sings in the choir. For fun, the family treasures chances to ski, travel and escape to their Garden City beach house, aptly named “Adjourned.”
Perhaps this vital nurturing mix has protected Kaye from developing the brittle edge sometimes found in women who work hard to break professional barriers. Friends and co-workers quickly point out that throughout her life she has remained her true self: a hard-working, fun-loving girly-girl who is not afraid to let her hair down – quite literally on several occasions! She and her former Clerk of Court, Ken Richstad, are famous for their karaoke performances in the courtroom of the S.C. Supreme Court as part of charity fundraisers sponsored by South Carolina Judicial Department, “wowing” the crowds in full garb as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers as well as Sonny and Cher.
“Bubba” Ness would certainly be proud of the young girl he hired fresh out of law school. Her name will soon join his on the roster of those few who have earned a place of honor on the state’s highest court. “I always had a dream of ending my legal career on the court where it began,” Kaye reflected. Then looking beyond the moment she continued, “If I have any legacy, I’d like to be remembered as a mentor to young lawyers.” To this end, she teaches at the Charleston School of Law and continuously mentors young interns and law clerks, 23 of them at last count, forming her “law clerk family” with whom she celebrated her election to the S.C. Supreme Court. Fittingly, one of these, Columbia attorney Matthew Richardson, just happens to be the grandson of her own mentor, Justice Julius “Bubba” Ness.
About this writer
- Connie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.