For the past 27 years, Master-in-Equity O. Davie Burgdorf has maintained a low-key but essential presence in the Orangeburg County Courthouse.
As a circuit-level judge, he heard testimony, ruled on motions and handed down decisions, but his cases did not generate attention-grabbing headlines and his verdicts did not reverberate throughout the world.
Such is the life of a master-in-equity, and Burgdorf says he preferred it that way.
It had been his intention to preside over one final session on Monday afternoon, then quietly slip into retirement, but his longtime administrative assistant, Renee Wingard, decided that the second-longest-serving master-in-equity in South Carolina deserved more in appreciation.
A half-hour after Burgdorf adjourned his final session, he heard voices in the courtroom and returned to find out what was going on.
He was stunned to find the wood-paneled room packed with people for a surprise drop-in reception in his honor.
There were family members — his wife, children and grandchildren; friends — including judges, attorneys and a state senator; and even his first administrative assistant, Carolyn Sutcliffe.
Rob Clariday, president of the Orangeburg Bar Association, gave Burgdorf a plaque on behalf of the bar association.
Brad Hutto, an attorney and a state senator, presented Burgdorf with a framed copy of a Senate resolution “to recognize and commend” the retiring jurist.
“He has a good demeanor in the way he treats litigants and lawyers,” attorney Michael Horger said. “He got to know the law well” and with his “good temperament,” he knew how to apply the law to the cases he heard.
Barney Houser said he met Burgdorf when both were attorneys in private practice, before Burgdorf was named master-in-equity.
“It was enjoyable to practice in front of him. He has always been easy-going and fair. He’s done a good job,” said Houser, who is now the Orangeburg municipal judge.
Burgdorf returned the praise, saying, “Orangeburg lawyers always have been good to me. They are the best!”
Wingard said most of the cases handled by the court are foreclosures and evictions, and Burgdorf was “caring and understanding, kind and impartial” in carrying out the law.
Burgdorf said the foreclosures were the hardest part of his job because of the pain they caused the people who lost their homes, but “I tried to make it as easy as possible” and not add to their grief.
The job had its lighter moments, too. One attorney noted Monday that Burgdorf was the only master-in-equity with his own theme song: a take-off on a “Davy Crockett” tune.
Attorney Jay Jackson recalled that when he opened his law practice in Orangeburg, the second person who visited him was Burgdorf.
“He’s been a great judge,” Jackson said. He is a candidate to succeed Burgdorf, who chose not to seek re-election. The General Assembly is scheduled to elect Burgdorf’s successor on Feb. 13 and that person will begin work in March.
Masters are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the General Assembly for a term of six years. They may serve in a full- or part-time capacity and are compensated by the county governing body.
Masters-in-equity have jurisdiction in matters referred to them by the circuit courts. They have the power and authority of the circuit court sitting without a jury. There are currently 21 masters-in-equity in South Carolina.
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