Former Judge Kemmerlin dies at age 79

Retired judge Thomas Kemmerlin Jr., who issued witty rulings on a range of subjects for 16 years as Beaufort County's master-in-equity, died Wednesday in Beaufort.

Kemmerlin, who also practiced and taught law, was 79. After retiring in 2003, he continued to act as a court-appointed arbitrator, hearing cases in his home on Coosaw Island.

Since his appointment by the governor in 1987, Kemmerlin helped shape the future of Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island with rulings that ranged from multi-million dollar damage awards to the legality of selling 25-cent oysters.

In 1992, he upheld a "transfer fee" on real estate purchases that the Town of Hilton Head Island has used to buy open space, and was involved in the battle over a proposed expressway to connect the two ends of the island. Many of his cases eventually were heard by the state Supreme Court, which rarely overruled him.

Kemmerlin's disheveled appearance -- colleagues recalled he once arrived at a party wearing one black wingtip shoe and one brown plain-toe shoe -- hid a sharp wit and biting humor.

At a time in which most legal opinions are written in colorless legalese, Kemmerlin's were woven with his personal observations, humor and often acerbic jabs.

In one, Kemmerlin wrote, "Hilton Head is an island off the coast of South Carolina on which a number of housing projects have been built, almost all of which are uniform in their darkly stained-wood dullness. The houses and condominia in these projects are made dull not for the intentional purpose of being ugly, but rather so that they 'blend' into such woods as are left after much of the island has been flat-cut to create golf courses."

On another occasion, Kemmerlin wrote, "The Amended Complaint is so poorly drawn that it could serve as the basis for a law school examination question: 'What is wrong with this complaint? Confine yourself to the 10 most glaring errors.'"

Before moving to Beaufort, Kemmerlin was a University of South Carolina law professor and a Columbia lawyer for 30 years.

He loved literature, could play the French horn, clarinet and piano, and was a concert-level harpsichordist.

Colleagues, who referred to Kemmerlin as "Tommy," said his distinctive judicial style even won over people on the losing end of his decisions.

S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said Kemmerlin was "a true Southern character" ideally suited to preside over "a people's court."

"He knew the law backwards and forwards," said Davis, a real estate lawyer who tried his first case before Kemmerlin and frequently sought his counsel thereafter.

Kemmerlin also had a "fundamental sense of fairness and equity and common sense," Davis said.

Kemmerlin always tried to seek common ground, Davis said. If Kemmerlin considered a lawyer's argument irrelevant, he would begin reading from a seed catalog, share his views on each side's case and suggest they take a break to try to reach an agreement.

Kemmerlin disliked lawyers he considered obnoxious and often joked he wished duels hadn't been outlawed, Davis said.

Kemmerlin would sprinkle his opinions with references to poetry and philosophy, said Jim Moss of the Beaufort firm Moss, Kuhn & Fleming.

Kemmerlin had an IQ that was "probably off the page," Moss said.

Davis' law partner, Colden Battey, considered Kemmerlin an ideal guest for a dinner party.

"You would rather have Judge Kemmerlin than anybody I know," Battey said.

Family members said Kemmerlin was generous and loyal to family and friends.

He never married or had children, but he adored his nieces and nephews and regularly took in cats and dogs, sister Bee Kemmerlin Brown of Sumter said.

Kemmerlin took his three sisters to the opera and taught them to play bridge, said Brown, who called Kemmerlin "the best brother that any girl could ever have had."

Despite his accomplishments and intellect, he was humble, niece Laura DeLaNoy of Snellville, Ga., said.

He was gifted in many arts and "pretty much a master of all of them," but he wouldn't acknowledge it if someone said it to his face, she said.

"He would go, 'Who?'" she said.

Memorial services will be 11 a.m. Saturday at Carteret United Methodist Church in Beaufort with burial in Bowman Memorial Cemetery in Bowman.