Summer Reading: Kentucky Legal Culture


In a recent post, I listed some of the most useful books that a new lawyer or recent transplant to the Bluegrass can use to orient themselves to the history and politics that lies just under the surface of Kentucky jurisprudence. But history and politics aren’t the whole story. After all, they deal with the big legal contests and the tectonic shifts in policy and society. What about the life of the working lawyer practicing in small towns and big city courts, meeting in lunchrooms and courthouse porticos between court appearances and sharing stories with fellow toilers? Or their clients: ordinary people whose mundane lives occasionally intersect with the majesty of the common law of Chancellor Coke and Justice Story?

This history--what anthropologists would call “legal culture”--is best captured in memoirs and in collections of the stories and anecdotes that lawyers would share in idle moments in courthouse hallways. Sadly, it is a culture that that has been wounded by a more high-paced world and the drive to maximize billable hours, and may be finished off by e-filing. Nonetheless, a spate of recent books has highlighted this rich slice of Kentucky life:

John S. Palmore, An Opinionated Career: Memoirs of a Kentucky Judge (Georgetown, Ky.: Kentucky River Press, 2003). (Not available online, but I’ve seen copies recently at Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville) and Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington).

In this thin volume, John Palmore, a giant of the Kentucky bench and bar who served on both the old Kentucky Court of Appeals and the state's new Supreme Court, offers an entertaining and revealing first-hand view of his life on the bench. Palmore takes us behind the scenes of some still vital high court decisions, shares stories on judicial campaigns, and discusses the 1970s reform movement that led to the 1975 Judicial Article amendment, including his efforts to implement the most challenging reform: the establishment of the district courts. Along the way he offers thumbnail sketches of his fellow justices and lawyers. (Palmore's follow-up, From the Panama Canal to Elkhorn Creek : A Chronicle of Life in the 20th Century by an Old Kentucky Lawyer (Louisville, Ky.: Butler Books, 2006) focuses more on his private life, but is still entertaining).


Mac Swinford, Kentucky Lawyer (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008).

In this reprint of his 1963 classic, the late Mac Swinford, the US District Judge for Kentucky (and the Eastern District after the 1963 division) offers an enjoyable take on the Kentucky bench and bar, mostly through the recounting of anecdotes from his early life as a small town practitioner in Cynthiana, Ky., in the 1920s, then and as a moonshiner-busting U.S. Attorney in the 1930s through his years as a federal trial court judge.  In addition to his own stories, Swinford repeats a few old lawyer tales he heard over his long career and recalls colorful members of the bar he knew.


William Lynwood Montell, Tales from Kentucky Lawyers. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.

Speaking of old lawyers tales, retired WKU folklorist Lynwood Montell has published a treasury of these anecdotes in this book (recently released in paperback). Montell, who built “one of the most successful folk studies programs in the United States” at WKU and is author of a extremely successful triad of books on Kentucky ghostlore, ably collects and selects stories that show the evolving practice of law in Kentucky, the breadth of experiences of ordinary life that lawyers see, and the fading sense of kinship among attorneys.

Harry M. Caudill, The Mountain, the Miner, and the Lord, and Other Tales from a Country Law Office (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1980) and Slender Is the Thread : Tales from a Country Law Office. (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1987).

Harry Caudill is most known to Kentuckians as the author of the classic 1963 expose of poverty in Appalachia and the ravages of the coal-mining industry, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and as an environmental activist. However before he wrote the book that inspired Robert F. Kennedy to tour eastern Kentucky, Caudill was a small-town lawyer in Whitesburg. In these two books, Caudill draws on his experiences to recount the lives of hard-working mountain folk drawn into his office by the vagaries life.

Finally, I'd recommend a trio of biographies of justices from Kentucky: Loren P. Beth, John Marshall Harlan : The Last Whig Justice (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), Philippa Strum, Louis D. Brandeis : Justice for the People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984) and James E. St. Clair and Linda C. Gugin, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky : A Political Biography (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2002).