Judge Clifton Newman has had many roles in the legal profession. Prior to being elected Circuit Court Judge by the South Carolina General Assembly in 2000, he was a partner in his own law firm, first in Cleveland, Ohio, then in Columbia and Kingstree, South Carolina. He also served as a defense attorney, civil practitioner, and prosecutor. “I’ve run the gamut, as far as handling all aspects of the law,” says Judge Newman.
He’s been very involved with the ABA’s Judges Initiative Committee of the Business Law Section, which seeks to increase judicial involvement in the section. “The Business Law Section is an amazing resource,” he says. “It’s an honor to serve on this committee.”
I read that you were inspired to peruse a legal career after playing a role as an attorney in a high school play. Can you tell us about that experience?
It was a wonderful experience. I grew up in rural South Carolina, so the opportunity to play the role of a lawyer in a play required me to get dressed up, as opposed to the tattered clothing that the other children in the play wore. The play was based on the 1954 school desegregation case, Briggs V. Elliott, which was later consolidated with Brown v. Board of Education. I played the role of a New York City lawyer, who came there to save the people.
What stayed with you?
It really inspired me in the sense that it helped to create a vision of something greater than I otherwise would have been exposed to. To come from a rural community, a farming community, and to go from that scenario to playing the role of a lawyer was quite inspiring.
You attended Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where you worked for the Legal Aid Society representing indigent clients. How did that experience shape you?
At Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, a student could become a legal intern in their second year in law school. The students could represent people and go to court under supervision. Legal Aid provided me with that opportunity. My first exposure to law was representing people who could not afford to hire lawyers, primarily in consumer-related matters. I would often find myself fighting an uphill battle in trying to provide some relief for a person who was unable to pay their bills and was being sued as a result of it, and trying to find creative defenses and applying some of the laws that might provide some protection to them.
You spent 24 years in private practice. What do you most enjoy about it?
I’ve run the gamut, as far as handling all aspects of the law. I had the opportunity to practice in Cleveland as a civil practitioner and a defense lawyer. I was also appointed to handle cases by the probate court there. Then I relocated to Columbia, South Carolina, and became a member of the bar there, and studied and learned the law and the way it was practiced in the medium-size city of Columbia. I was also going back home to Williamsburg County and to practice law in a rural community. I practiced as a private practitioner as well as a prosecutor.
Are you referring to the 17 years you spent as Assistant Solicitor for Williamsburg County?
Williamsburg County is my home county. I was a prosecutor there, and before that a defense attorney. I was convinced I could do more to defend by prosecuting because prosecutors have wide discretion in dealing with matters. While I was a prosecutor, I also had a private practice. It was a small area, and we did not have court throughout the year. That was a wonderful experience, probably my best experience in the law as a practitioner and prosecutor.
You could serve as a prosecutor for Williamsburg and keep your private practice going?
When I started, which was way back in the early ’80s, we only had court three weeks per year, so it gave me a lot of free time to do something other than prosecute. So the practice of law was my full-time job—I had a law firm that I was a managing partner and founder of—and I was also prosecuting and representing the Department of Social Services.
What did you most enjoy about being a prosecutor?
I enjoyed the challenges involved in litigation. Prosecutors play a very important and critical role in our judicial system in pursuing justice. Prosecutorial discretion gives you an opportunity to give someone a break or to dismiss a case if you believe that it’s a wrongful prosecution. I certainly appreciated the discretion involved in the prosecution, but most importantly to me were the challenges of litigation and proving cases, examining and cross-examining witnesses.
In 2000, you were elected to be a Circuit Court Judge by the South Carolina General Assembly. Did you always aspire to be a judge?
It became a dream after practicing law for a period of time and always being before the court and saying, “May it please the court,” and, “If your Honor pleases,” and asking and begging and seeking things from the judge.
You’ve been a judge now for a while. What do you enjoy about that position and what don’t you enjoy?
I enjoy the responsibility, the awesome responsibility. It’s also a challenge, carrying the weight of the judicial system on your shoulders and seeking to dispense justice in a way that it should be dispensed.
I’ve heard that being a judge can be rather isolating. Have you found that? And if so, how do you address it?
That’s a drawback, for sure, because if you’ve been involved in an active practice of law, either as a prosecutor or private practitioner, you’re constantly fielding phone calls and interacting with the clients. You go from that to not being permitted to engage in ex parte communication and not being out there soliciting business and being engaged as much in the public. You find other avenues of fulfillment.
What have you come up with?
The one outlet that judges have is engaging in activities that assist with legal education and promote the judicial interests of our legal system. So, networking opportunities that involve legal education, being involved on committees, including the ABA, are great opportunities to give back and help with the development of the law.
You’ve won awards for restoring historic buildings in Kingstree and Columbia. How did this become an interest for you?
Primarily through being the managing partner of a law office. I’ve always been interested in real estate and real estate development and studied some of that in law school. As a result, restoring historical buildings became an interest. In most instances, the buildings were restored and became offices of mine and as a result I received those awards.
Did you first become attracted to the building or were your offices in the building?
With the first buildings, I was fortunate that they were right across from the courthouse. There were three dilapidated buildings in the heart of downtown. I acquired those and restored them, and along the way, that helped restore that area of town. The community was certainly grateful to have a portion of downtown restored and it provided a great opportunity for me to do something I enjoy doing. It also furthered my interest in construction and real estate development.