COLUMBIA, S.C. – When she hired Michelle Childs to practice employment law in the early 1990s right out of school, Vickie Eslinger says she knew there was something different about the freshly minted South Carolina attorney.
“I immediately identified her as someone that nobody was going to outwork,” Eslinger said. “As soon as you got Michelle working on something, everybody wanted her, because she was quick, and she was diligent."
Eslinger is herself a trailblazer. As a law student, she was denied the right to serve as a page in the South Carolina Senate based solely on her gender, and she successfully sued to overturn that policy. Eslinger spoke with The Associated Press days after the White House confirmed that Childs, now a federal judge in South Carolina, was under consideration for the vacancy on the nation's highest court created by the impending retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer.
The potential nominees are defined by President Joe Biden's election-year pledge that he would nominate a Black woman for the court. Early discussions center on a handful of names, including California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger and Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former Breyer clerk now on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
But there has been focus on Childs due to advocacy from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest ranking Black leader in Congress. He is a top Biden ally who suggested the then-candidate promise to nominate a Black woman as his campaign struggled heading into South Carolina's 2020 primary. Biden made the pledge at a debate in Charleston, and Clyburn endorsed him shortly thereafter.
Clyburn also promoted Childs’ now-pending nomination to the D.C. circuit court, and over the past week he has made it clear that she is his favorite for the high court opening. Childs also has drawn praise from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, who has called Childs a “fair-minded, highly gifted jurist."
Childs was born in Detroit in 1966 and moved to South Carolina as a teenager after her mother picked the state as a safer place to raise her children following their father's death. Initially, Childs pondered following her mother into personnel management, starting with undergraduate studies at the University of South Florida.
“Before I got interested in law, I actually thought I was going to become a psychologist,” she told Law360 in 2014. “But that interest has come in handy, particularly in sentencing, where you have to deal with so many personal issues."
In college, Childs has said she gained interest in law by participating in a mock trial program. After her undergraduate work, she returned home, earning law and graduate business degrees from the University of South Carolina.
The lack of an Ivy League pedigree is something that makes Childs unique among the current crop of potential Supreme Court picks, as well as most justices on the court itself. It's also something that advocates, including Clyburn, have said would help make the Supreme Court more representative of America.
In a 2020 Q&A, Childs said she chose South Carolina because she “believed that it would provide me a solid legal foundation” and help forge legal connections in the state.
After law school, Childs did exactly that, going to work at Nexsen Pruet, one of the state’s largest firms. She later become the first Black female partner. In private practice, Childs “did everything” in the realm of employment law, Eslinger said, working on administrative, construction, corporate and bankruptcy cases.
“If you gave her something that needed to be worked on, or looked at from a different standpoint, you’d get it back the next day," Eslinger said. "I don’t know when she slept, frankly.”
Eight years later, then-Gov. Jim Hodges appointed Childs to deputy director of South Carolina’s labor department, after which she served four years on the state Worker’s Compensation Commission.
In 2006, state lawmakers elected Childs to South Carolina's circuit court, on which she heard a litany of cases from murder and child abuse to civil actions against state agencies. Then-South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, the first woman on that court, said she often picked Childs to substitute on the appellate bench, in part because Toal saw a higher court in Childs' future.
“I wanted her to have that experience,” Toal told the AP Tuesday. “I knew she was destined for further things, and I wanted this to be part of what was in her wheelhouse as a judge.”
Tasked with assigning cases, Toal said she also knew she could count on Childs to take on the most difficult ones.
“I began to use her on some of the gnarly cases, and she thrived with that kind of assignment," Toal said. “She's a workhorse, but in an unassuming way. She was just like, ‘Chief, I’ve got this.’”
One of Childs' highest-profile duties came in 2009, when she sentenced three men who staged one of the largest armored car heists in U.S. history.
That same year, President Barack Obama nominated Childs for an opening on the federal district court in South Carolina.
Her hearing was marked by bipartisan support. Graham joined Clyburn in introducing Childs to the committee.
“Every lawyer that I know of who’s appeared before her, regardless of their political persuasion or philosophy, has nothing but great things to say about Judge Childs as being fair, smart, courteous to lawyers,” Graham said at the time. "We’re just very proud of her.”
In more than a decade, Childs has handled a wide variety of federal cases, including the 2012 sentencing of a former county councilman to 20 years for orchestrating a Ponzi scheme that prosecutors said defrauded investors out of more than $50 million.
Two years later, she ruled that South Carolina’s failure to recognize a lesbian couple’s marriage performed in Washington, D.C. had been unconstitutional, an order that came amid escalating tensions over state recognitions of same-sex marriages.
The potential nomination of Childs has also drawn criticism from the left, mainly over her work on employment cases. Our Revolution executive director Joseph Geevarghese called it “highly concerning” that Clyburn and others were pushing for Childs, given Biden's pro-union stance.
“Workers do not need another anti-labor justice actively opposing the very labor protections this administration is working to uphold and expand,” Geevarghese said this week. “It would be nonsensical to nominate a union-busting justice to the nation’s highest court.”
As to that criticism, Eslinger noted that Childs had not only handled employment defense cases but also represented plaintiffs against employers, doing both evenhandedly.
“There’s not a biased bone in her body,” Eslinger said.
In 2014, Childs told Law360 that her goal as a jurist is to convince the public that those who serve in the court system are there on behalf of the people.
“In many ways, I’ve looked at my job as trying to bring some truth to that old joke: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” she said.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.