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Robert Witherspoon Hemphill papersRobert Witherspoon Hemphill (1915-1983) represented South Carolina's Fifth District in the United States Congress from 1957 to 1964. President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed Hemphill to a Federal judgeship in April 1964. A distinguished jurist noted for his keen opinions and strong work ethic, Hemphill took senior status in 1980. He continued to hear cases until he suffered a massive heart attack in July 1983. Soon after he returned to work, on Christmas night 1983, a second heart attack ended his life.
Hemphill was born in Chester to John McLure Hemphill and Helen Witherspoon Hemphill. His father was an attorney associated with the family firm of Hemphill & Hemphill. Educated in the Chester public schools, he received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Carolina, and joined the family law firm in 1938. In August 1941 he volunteered for military service as a "Flying Cadet." He served in the Army Air Force chiefly as an instructor, stationed at airfields in Texas, training pilots on the B-24 Liberator bomber. He returned to Chester and the practice of law in September 1945.
Hemphill's career of public service began as a member of the state House of Representatives, 1947-1948. He served as solicitor of the Sixth Judicial Circuit between 1951 and 1956 and won election to Congress in 1956. On his appointment to the bench in 1964 to fill the vacancy caused by the retirement of George Bell Timmerman in 1962, Hemphill remarked—"As much as I loved being congressman, and I loved it, I don't believe I could find anything to make me happier than this position."
At the time of Hemphill's death, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles E. Simons, Jr., characterized him as "an outstanding judge of great judicial temperament, and he was one of the hardest-working people I have ever known." State Senator John Martin noted—"Some of his opinions are classic for the humor and satire in them. He was a hard worker, a man of enormous energy, and serious-minded, but at the same time he had a delightful sense of humor."
The collection consists of six and a quarter linear feet of papers, 1926-1984, and chiefly documents his service as a member of Congress and Federal District Court judge, 1964-1983. The papers are arranged in seven series: General Papers, Judicial Opinions, Speeches, Topical Files, Writings, Photographs, and Clippings.
General Papers, 1926-1983, consist primarily of correspondence. This series mainly documents Hemphill's political campaigns in 1950 for Solicitor and 1956 for Congress; activities in Congress, 1957-1964; his appointment to the bench in 1964; and his subsequent judicial career. It also contains records relating to the Democratic Party in South Carolina, Chester, and the life-style of a segment of South Carolina's social elite, particularly the hunting and fishing which provided Judge Hemphill and his friends and associates with opportunities for fellowship and recreation. Correspondents include Sol Blatt, Jr., Tom S. Gettys, Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr., J. Robert Martin, Jr., Julius B. ("Bubba") Ness, and Donald Russell.
Hemphill was very popular in his district and threw his support behind the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960. He was virtually the only House member from South Carolina to campaign actively on Kennedy's behalf. Hemphill said of Kennedy—"He was my kind of guy. He didn't want to be good, he wanted to be the best, and thats [sic] what it takes" (The Charlotte Observer, 1 April 1964). After Kennedy's election, rumors began circulating that Hemphill was in line to be appointed a Federal judge. Responding to one report, Hemphill stated, 2 March 1961—"I have been watching the political winds...my chance of being Federal Judge...is very thin. Olin [D. Johnston] has many commitments and I never knew there were so many people who did so much for the party—that is, until we won [the presidency]....I plan to offer for Congress in 1962, although there has been terrific pressure on me to run for Governor." Writing Wesley Walker of Greenville on 29 August 1962, Hemphill noted—"The situation insofar as the Judgeships are concerned continues to be fluid. If Judge [George Bell] Timmerman resigns, as he states that he will do, I expect to seek that particular Judgeship, but....I cannot afford to make any public statement because of my duties in connection with the Democratic effort this fall. I do not think Olin Johnston will be in any trouble, but trouble could develop."
Correspondence between 1962 and 1964 provides fascinating insights into the effort launched by friends of Hemphill to secure his appointment to the bench. In recommending Hemphill to Olin Johnston, John West, then a senator representing Kershaw County, wrote on 29 November 1962—"I know from first hand experience Bob's competence as a lawyer and his ability is recognized and respected by all of the attorneys in this area....In addition, by all of the rules of politics...he is entitled to first consideration. As you know better than most, he was the only Congressman from our State who openly campaigned for President Kennedy in 1960. The untiring work along with his influence and prestige resulted in his District going overwhelmingly for the Democratic ticket....The memory of our recent campaign is still fresh...Mr. Hemphill again was the only Congressman who campaigned for you in the face of surprising Republican strength. He did this without concern for future political success." Other correspondents include Sol Blatt, Jr., John Bolt Culbertson, Olin Johnston, John F. and Robert Kennedy, John Spratt, and Strom Thurmond. Later letters touch on all manners of subjects—judicial, political, and personnel. Concerning the judiciary, 28 August 1967, Hemphill stated—"I thoroughly agree with the premise that judges should have some trial experience, or be subjected to some indoctrination, but I don't want the selection of judges to get into the hands of the people, or selection [to] depend on his Harvard education instead of his ability. The trial judge is closer to the truth of the situation than any other judge. His principal search is for the truth and his duty to make sure that the truth is realized in the form of a verdict. Appellate judges are concerned with error, procedure, technicality and form."
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