John S. Palmore, retired chief justice of Kentucky Supreme Court, dead at 99

John S. Palmore, then chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court.
John S. Palmore, then chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court. Photo provided

John S. Palmore, retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Kentucky, died Tuesday in Frankfort. He was 99.

Palmore was first elected to the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1959, then the state’s highest court. He served as chief justice in 1966 and 1973.

After Kentucky’s judicial system was restructured in 1975, the Supreme Court of Kentucky became the state’s highest court, and Palmore remained there until retiring in 1982. He was chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1977 to 1982.

Palmore chaired the review commission that drafted Kentucky’s criminal code, and he wrote more than 800 published opinions during his time on the bench. He also authored a manual on instructions to Kentucky juries that trial court judges still use today.

Furthermore, Palmore was instrumental in the adoption and implementation of judicial reforms ratified as a constitutional amendment in the mid-1970s, said current Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. of Bowling Green.

“There is probably no individual who did more to shape the law in Kentucky in the 20th century than John Palmore,” Minton said. “He is a towering figure in Kentucky law.”

“He was one of the most knowledgeable and distinguished and respected justices ever on the Supreme Court,” said former Gov. Julian Carroll, now a state senator. “He had one of the greatest careers of any public servant of whom I have been aware in all of my 55 years of public service.”

Former Gov. Martha Layne Collins said she knew Palmore from her days as clerk of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, before she was elected governor.

“He not only contributed in the judicial role he was in, but as a dedicated Kentuckian,” Collins said. “He never really quit until his health prevented it. He was highly regarded from the youth also, because he encouraged many young people to enter the legal profession.”

Born Aug. 6, 1917, in the Panama Canal Zone, Palmore graduated from Bowling Green High School in 1934.

He attended Western Kentucky University for two years, then went to the University of Louisville School of Law. The day after graduating in 1939, he joined a Henderson law firm. He interrupted his young career by volunteering to go into the Navy during World War II.

When he returned from the war, he served as city attorney for Henderson. He was appointed as commonwealth’s attorney in 1955 and served in that position until he was elected to the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1959.

As a former chief justice, Palmore was an adviser to Gov. Collins. In 1983, Palmore urged Collins, then lieutenant governor, to declare herself acting governor when Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. was in critical condition after heart surgery.

Collins named Palmore to the Western Kentucky University Board of Regents in 1984. He served in that position until 1988.

In 1985, Palmore said he was considering a run for governor in 1987. But he wound up chairing Carroll’s campaign for governor in the 1987 Democratic primary. In the end, Lexington businessman Wallace Wilkinson won the primary, defeating Carroll and Brown among others. Wilkinson went on to win the governor’s race in the 1987 general election.

Palmore’s wife, Carol, who held a variety of top posts in the administrations of five governors, died of cancer in 2015 at age 66.

Palmore published two autobiographies, “An Opinionated Career: Memoirs of a Kentucky Judge” in 2003 and “From Panama to Elkhorn Creek” in 2006.

Chief Justice Minton said he and Palmore shared a bond in that both were from Bowling Green and both had attended Western Kentucky University. Minton said he enjoyed the times that the Palmores would invite friends to their Franklin County home to watch a movie.

“They had a popcorn machine and Carol would pop the popcorn and they would open a bottle of wine,” Minton said.

Harrod Brothers Funeral Home in Frankfort is handling arrangements.