Darlington native earns judgeship

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpress.net

Newly installed as a judge with the Fourth Judicial Circuit Family Court, attorney Cely Anne Baker Brigman is certainly a hometown girl who made good. She remembers growing up in Darlington as an idyllic experience in a more innocent time, when she and her three younger brothers would ramble all over town without a care.

“We wandered the streets and swam in the creeks in the park,” Cely recalls. “We would go in all the stores downtown – Jolly’s grocery store, Julia’s ladies shop, Coggeshalls, Davis Gift Shop, Metropol Bakery… they just let us wander in and out and nobody bothered us.”

Judge Cely Anne Baker Brigman, newly installed with the Fourth Judicial Circuit Family Court.

Judge Cely Anne Baker Brigman, newly installed with the Fourth Judicial Circuit Family Court.

She recalls attending school during the stormy early days of desegregation, and says that although many families of means removed their children to private academies, her parents chose to keep the Baker brood in public school.

“I’ve always admired them for that,” Brigman says. “They said, ‘You know what? This is how it’s going to be.’ They let us know that we weren’t any better than anybody else.”

She played tennis at St. John’s High, though she admits teenage Cely was more interested in looking cute than winning matches.

“I was a terrible tennis player, but they let me be on the team even though I was more interested in wearing the little outfit and traveling with the team. The few times they asked me to play, I was like, “Are you sure?” she recalls with a laugh.

Steeped in legalese from childhood, Cely grew up hearing courtroom tales from her dad, retired attorney Ken Baker, who spent his early career practicing with legendary lawyer and state senator James Pierce “Spot” Mozingo.

“I grew up hearing stories about other lawyers and trials and court proceedings… I was too young to appreciate it then, but the stories he tells about how things were in that era with the senator – it was just a different time,” says Brigman. “It’s very entertaining when he gets on a roll.”

Even with such an early indoctrination, law school was not a foregone conclusion for Cely. She felt that public service of some sort was in her future, and says she was inspired by both her father and her late mother, Betty, who was the first woman elected to serve on two local governments: Darlington City Council and Darlington County Council.

Though Cely didn’t initially plan on becoming an attorney, she graduated from Columbia College and, lacking a more concrete option, proceeded to earn a Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina Law School.

After a few years of general practice in Dillon, Brigman joined her father’s Darlington firm and worked as an associate for thirteen years. She gravitated toward family law and, as her practice progressed, she frequently found herself working in family court where the stakes can sometimes be incredibly high.

“A family court judge can affect areas of your life that no other judge can. You’re talking about your home, your children, your business, all your property… and I take that responsibility very seriously,” says Brigman. “Being the lawyer for many of these people, you know that their day in court is their one day that they get to have a judge hear them, and so many people just want to be heard.”

In both her capacity as an attorney and as Chief Magistrate of Darlington County (a post held since her 2003 gubernatorial appointment, on the recommendation of Sen. Gerald Malloy), Brigman has also worked extensively with criminal domestic violence cases, and she continues to handle domestic litigation with the Jebaily Law Firm of Florence.

Her broad experience in family court led her to consider trying for the open Seat 2 judgeship with the Fourth Circuit Family Court. The application and vetting process is extensive and involved, with candidates screened and tested several times before the final three candidates are voted on by the SC General Assembly.

“It’s a hard process. It’s grueling and it wears you out,” says Brigman.

Emerging from the crucible with a new title is just the beginning; next up, the new judge will start learning the ropes while on the job. Brigman says she will begin work on June 22, with the first weeks spent sitting cases with judges around the state.

“That’s to give you some perspective on how other judges do things. It’s a learning experience too, because it’s kind of intimidating to just be thrown out on the bench,” she says. “It’s a period where you can ask a lot of questions and you get to see things in action.”

Brigman says that during her cases in the Fourth Circuit (which covers Darlington, Dillon, Marlboro, and Chesterfield Counties), and Twelfth Circuit (Florence and Marion Counties) she’s had the opportunity to learn from many skilled jurists, and she hopes to bring that knowledge to the bench.

She praises her family – including husband Greg and daughters Tangie and Emma – and her colleagues at the Jebaily Law Firm for their support during her selection process. Cely adds that yes, her father Ken is very proud of her latest achievement. Mr. Baker retired in 2010 after nearly half a century of practicing law.

“He’s so excited. He calls me all the time,” says Cely.

Brigman says she is looking forward to settling in on the bench and spending more time in Darlington, where she hopes to take a more active role in city life.

“I feel like for the last several years, I’ve been disconnected from home, so I’m looking forward to getting more involved with the community,” she says.

Author: Duane Childers

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