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Steady hand at the helm


Born and raised in South Carolina, Judge Clifton Newman (BA ’73, JD ’76) has served with distinction on that state’s Circuit Court for more than 20 years. But he is a Cleveland State grad two times over, and he maintains strong ties to the city and university.

Judge Newman was president of student government and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity during undergraduate school, and he interned with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland while in law school.

He began his legal career here as well, but in 1982, he headed back to South Carolina. He told the Post and Courier last year that he left in part because he didn’t want his children participating in a federally mandated busing program to integrate schools; it made him feel like a pawn, he said.

Despite his strong ties to Cleveland, most of us, here and across the nation, got to know Judge Newman just recently, when he presided earlier this year over the murder trial of disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh.

Murdaugh is a fourth-generation lawyer and part of a South Carolina legal dynasty; he was charged with the July 2021 killings of his wife and son. Murdaugh’s identity and the nature of the allegations against him ensured that every moment of the trial would be widely covered in the media. 

By the time Murdaugh was convicted in March and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, Judge Newman had become a household name all over the U.S. and earned the universal respect of ‘regular’ folks, longtime jurists and court watchers alike for his handling of the proceedings.

This was far from the first time Judge Newman had taken the helm of a high-profile case. In 2016, for example, he presided over the trial of a white police officer who had killed an unarmed Black man named Walter Scott, shooting him in the back as he fled.

Given the relentless attention that such trials receive, and the volatile emotions they unleash, judges need a strong and steady hand to guide the proceedings fairly and productively. In South Carolina, Judge Newman has long been known for employing such a measured approach, and he again projected calm and demonstrated consummate professionalism as he presided over the Murdaugh trial.

It wasn’t until sentencing that Judge Newman made his insightfulness and empathetic nature clear. He chastised Murdaugh for “duplicitous conduct” during the trial, while showing deep understanding of how the murders will affect the man’s soul. “I know you have to see Paul and Maggie during the night time when you’re attempting to go to sleep,” Judge Newman said. “I’m sure they come and visit you.”

The judge has said subsequently that he believes Murdaugh neither hated his wife nor failed to love his son, “but he committed the unforgivable, unimaginable crime, and there’s no way he’ll be able to sleep peacefully.”

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