Kentucky’s quality of justice owes a great deal to John S. Palmore, who died July 4, a month shy of his 100th birthday.
No one did “more to shape the law in Kentucky in the 20th century,” said current Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., who called Palmore “a towering figure.”
The grandson of a Union cavalryman in the Civil War, Palmore served in the Navy during World War II, including in the battle of Okinawa. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone, grew up in Bowling Green, Horse Cave and Louisville, and, after graduating from the University of Louisville law school, began his legal career in Henderson.
Palmore, who served three terms as the state’s chief justice, presided over the transformation of Kentucky’s courts after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1975 creating a unified court system and ending the days of judges who lacked any legal training.
During his 23 years on the state’s highest court, he wrote more than 800 published opinions. In 1969, he chaired a committee that drafted a new criminal code. The jury instructions that he wrote for civil trials are still used in Kentucky courtrooms.
In his almost century of life, Palmore witnessed — and participated in — massive change, not the least in politics. Raised a staunch Republican, he wrote in 2006, “I am no longer a Republican, and proud of it.”
Earlier, he had drawn the ire of liberal allies by defending the coal industry’s use of broadform deeds to strip mine land over the owner’s objection.
With his stentorian voice — he had aspired to be an opera singer — and white locks, Palmore was central casting’s ideal judge. He advised governors and toyed with a run for governor himself. His wife, Eleanor, died in 1980 and he retired from the high court in 1982. He married Carol Pate Palmore, a lawyer who served in a number of gubernatorial administrations. Together they established a reputation for hospitality and lively discourse at their Frankfort home. Carol Palmore died in December 2015.
Palmore raised and trained Labrador retrievers, including a field trial champion named Hundred Proof Tad, but quit the sport because he no longer enjoyed killing pheasants and ducks. In his memoir, “From Panama to Elkhorn Creek, A Chronicle of Life in the 20th Century by an Old Kentucky Lawyer,” he explained, “I have learned to respect the lives of other creatures. Today, I don’t want to kill anything.”
Palmore will be buried in the Frankfort Cemetery and in keeping with his wishes there will no public visitation or services.