By ADAM PARKER The Post and Courier
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — After 26 years as a sitting federal judge, Margaret Seymour is standing up now and stretching her legs in Charleston.
The first African American woman to don a judicial robe at the federal level in South Carolina, and the first Black person to become chief U.S. district judge in the state, Seymour has returned to practice law, this time at the Saxton & Stump firm. She will focus on commercial litigation, Title IX and labor disputes, some of the issues that concerned her during the first part of her legal career in Washington, D.C. — before she assumed her seat at the bench.
Seymour, 75, is good at managing her workload, perhaps because she lets off steam by running long distances with friends, perhaps because of the hours she spends in the garden. Or perhaps it’s because of her serene demeanor, compartmentalized mind and years of practice.
When she presided over the courtroom, she sometimes faced up to 400 cases on the docket at any given time, so she learned to work several of them simultaneously.
An unperturbable presence, Seymour did sometimes encounter those who, intentionally or not, challenged her unwavering evenhandedness.
Like the time early in her career as a judge when an attorney noticed her emerging from chambers dressed in her robe and preparing to take her seat at the bench and said, “Who are you?”
Like the time when, after sentencing a volatile defendant to prison, the man went berserk, screaming and cursing and turning over the furniture, so she found him in contempt of court and calmly announced she was adding time to his sentence.
She is not one to issue expansive pronouncements or dwell long on a topic. She prefers concision. Her professional attitude is matter-of-fact. Her stolid countenance belies an active mind and a deep passion for justice.
“She is a really strong person,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie, a close friend and running partner. “She perseveres. I don’t see weakness there. I see great kindness, and great concern.”
She engenders fierce loyalty, probably because she never caves in to pressure, because she is fair-minded and able to make tough decisions, Currie said.
“I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about her, ever.”
Level-headed. Not easily flustered. Respectful. Durable. Tenacious. These are the words her colleagues use to describe Seymour.
But she has endured personal struggles, of course. That rugged toughness surely has its counterpart.
Born into a close-knit family in Washington, D.C., Seymour learned about the importance of education and hard work early on. Her father, Willie Beane, was a cab driver and butcher; her mother, Vanilla Beane, was an elevator operator, office cleaner and, eventually, a famous milliner. (She died in October at 103.)
Seymour performed well in school, ending up on a “college prep” track because of her high test scores. She wanted to go to college, but a guidance counselor told her that she would do better getting a job and helping her family financially.
“Why did I take all these classes then?” she wondered to herself.
The guidance counselor’s advice angered her parents, who arranged a meeting with a local pastor with a reputation for successful navigation of bureaucracy. He helped Seymour prepare and submit her college applications.
She majored in English literature at Howard University, graduating in 1969. Then, in the evenings, she attended law school at American University, even as she worked full time by day as a secretary in a government office that exposed her to civil rights law.
“I wanted to do something that was going to help people, to make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.
First she took a job with the Equal Opportunity Commission, then became an equal opportunity specialist with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
That gave her a grounding in civil rights matters and a concern for equal justice under the law, so when in 1980 she became an attorney practicing in the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education, she was ready.
During her tenure there, she worked on school desegregation and affirmative action cases, helping colleges and universities develop diversity goals and recruitment plans. She also got married.
Joseph Shine was a lawyer from Charleston. When in 1988 he was offered the position of chief deputy attorney general for South Carolina, he saw it as a chance to return to his home state. Seymour was ambivalent. She loved her job. But his was an opportunity that ought to be embraced. So she gave up her civil rights work and came south.
He promised Seymour that it didn’t snow in South Carolina. The day they arrived in Columbia, snow had coated the ground.
It was a difficult transition for Seymour. At first, she felt isolated and a little out of touch. She struggled to find a job, eventually joining a law firm. But she preferred government work and in 1990 became assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina. Three years later, she became interim U.S. Attorney after John S. Simmons retired.
In Columbia, she could get close to one of her most important role models, Matthew Perry Jr. As a young attorney, Perry defended civil rights activists in the 1960s. In 1979, he became the first African American appointed a U.S. district judge in South Carolina.
Seymour looked up to him.
“Judge Matthew Perry was just a hero to me,” she said.
When a position for magistrate judge opened in 1996, she consulted with Perry, who encouraged her to apply.
She would soon walk in her mentor’s footsteps, repeating the main lesson she learned from him: “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
For all the years she spent on the bench as a magistrate judge and, later a U.S. district judge, Seymour often would invoke the spirit of the man who preceded her. When faced with a legal dilemma or difficult decision, she would ask herself: What would Judge Perry do?
In the fall of 1998, William Byrd Traxler Jr. was elevated from the U.S. District Court in South Carolina to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Sens. Fritz Hollings and Strom Thurmond recommended Seymour to President Bill Clinton. She would spend 26 years on the job, hearing all kinds of cases, from white-collar crimes and fraud to voter redistricting. In 2012, she became chief judge. In 2013, she became senior judge.
“It was the best job in the world,” she said, adding, “Every job I’ve had, I’ve loved.”
Deborah Morgan became Seymour’s law clerk in 1996. She remembered long hours together in the car, traveling from courtroom to courtroom.
“We were together so long, we were like an old married couple,” Morgan said. “We would finish each other’s sentences.”
Seymour’s subdued demeanor made her easy to work with. There was never an agenda, only a striving for the fairest outcome, Morgan said.
When it came time to issue a sentence, Seymour became focused and deliberate.
“I always appreciated that about her,” Morgan said. “I never quite understood how a judge could look someone in the face and say, ‘You’re going to prison for 30 years.’”
Seymour’s careful deliberation inspired others to think things through better, Morgan added.
“There’s a presence about her that helps everybody,” she said.
Currie and Shine worked together in the Attorney General’s Office for a while, and that’s how she was introduced to Seymour. The two women started running together and became good friends.
“I became a judge in 1994; she became a magistrate judge after that,” Currie said. “I was mostly in the Florence division; she was posted to Florence as a magistrate judge. So we ran at lunchtime and got to know each other even better.”
Seymour would preside over initial bond appearances, then the case would go to Currie for resolution.
Both judges were on the road a lot.
“We would wear headlamps, our clerks would drive, and we would work, reading our paperwork in the car,” Currie said. “It was dark when left in the morning, and dark when we returned.”
In 2003, Seymour’s husband died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 54. It was a terrible shock to Seymour and their two sons. Shine in 1971 had been the second African American to graduate from The Citadel, then fulfilled his dream of becoming a lawyer. He was chief council working for the Savannah River Site at the time of his death.
“The day that Joe died, we ran together that morning,” Currie recalled. “Then I got a call.” Something terrible had happened. “I jumped in the car and followed (Seymour) to Aiken, drove her back, picked up her son from school and took him home.”
It was a trial of the sort Seymour was unaccustomed to.
District Judge Richard Gergel also knew Shine. And he’s thrilled Seymour now is living in the Charleston area, he said.
The stories he’s heard over the years illustrate well Seymour’s low-key toughness.
Like the one about the wife of a defendant who was ordered to recover diamond bracelets so restitution could be made to victims of a fraudulent scheme.
“The wife comes into the courtroom … in a beautiful, elegant St. John’s dress and said she couldn’t remember what happened,” Gergel recounted. “Judge Seymour stared at her for a moment and said, ‘Lock her up.’ Next day, she’s back in the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit, and she remembered.”
In Charleston, Seymour is part of a book club. She loves to read novels. She’s often got music playing. She’s thinking about community service. She’s attending events at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church downtown.
And she’s gearing up for a new chapter in her long legal career.
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