In late 1963 President Kennedy decided to appoint Hemphill to the federal bench, United States Fourth Judicial Court. The appointment papers, however, were still on his desk when the president was assassinated that November in Dallas.
Congressman, jurist. Hemphill was born in Chester on May 10, 1915, the son of John McClure Hemphill and Helen Witherspoon. He graduated from Chester High School in 1932, the University of South Carolina in 1936, and received a law degree from that institution two years later. Before World War II, Hemphill practiced law in the family firm.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Hemphill enlisted in the army air corps and commenced training as a B-24 bomber pilot in Texas. He went on to complete flight training and served as a pilot until the end of the war, advancing to the rank of major. He married Isabelle Anderson of Asherton, Texas, on June 20, 1942. The marriage produced three children.
Hemphill returned to Chester after the war and immersed himself in his small-town law practice and politics. In late 1946 he won a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, served one term, and returned to the family law firm of Hemphill and Hemphill. By 1950 his love of the courtroom persuaded him to seek the office of solicitor of the Sixth South Carolina Judicial Circuit. He served as solicitor from 1951 to 1956, when he was elected to succeed the retiring Congressman James P. Richards.
As a freshman member of Congress, Hemphill clashed with Richards over the issues of foreign aid and America’s role in international affairs. In a 1957 speech before the Lancaster Rotary Club, Richards labeled Hemphill a “southern isolationist.” The two congressmen, however, quickly, made their peace and Hemphill easily won reelection to Congress in 1958, 1960, and 1962. In Congress, Hemphill formed a friendship with Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who spoke at Hemphill’s alma mater in 1958. Two years later, Congressman Hemphill endorsed Kennedy for the presidency and campaigned for him.
In late 1963 President Kennedy decided to appoint Hemphill to the federal bench, United States Fourth Judicial Court. The appointment papers, however, were still on his desk when the president was assassinated that November in Dallas. The new chief executive, Lyndon Johnson, endorsed the nomination, and in January 1964 the U.S. Senate approved Hemphill as a federal judge.
For nearly twenty years Judge Hemphill drove from his Chester home to conduct federal court in cities such as Columbia and Greenville. In 1981 Judge Hemphill took senior status and held court, as needed, around the country. He continued to make his home in Chester and teach Sunday school until his death on December 25, 1983. He was buried in the Hopewell Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Chester.
Collins, Ann P. A Goodly Heritage: History of Chester County, South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1986.
Hemphill, Robert Witherspoon. Papers. Modern Political Collections, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.