He was the first chief justice of the state supreme court in Texas, and as such, he made Texas law into an instrument to be used by all people. John Hemphill was one of the first great legal minds to preside over a Texas court.
Hemphill was born in South Carolina in 1803, the son of a Presbyterian minister and Irish immigrant. As a young man, he attended Jefferson College in Pennsylvania and briefly served as a teacher.
Though college educated, he never attended a formal law school. As was the custom at the time, he apprenticed himself to a local attorney to study the law. Within a matter of months, Hemphill was allowed to practice law in South Carolina. By 1831, he had established his own law practice. He was an outspoken lawyer and briefly edited a newspaper in Sumter.
After Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836, he became fascinated by the events unfolding in the new republic. He headed west in 1838 and began a law practice at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where he quickly became a respected figure.
In January 1840, the Texas Congress selected him to be associate justice on the Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas. As a justice, he had to shape how the law in Texas would be interpreted by the courts. Texas was just developing its own law system and was still working with laws left over from Spanish and Mexican rule. Realizing he had to be able to understand the cases coming before him that were based in Spanish law, Hemphill quickly learned Spanish to be able decipher and apply the intricacies of these old laws.
By December, the Texas Congress had elevated him to the position of chief justice of the supreme court. As chief justice, he played a careful role in crafting the practice of law in Texas. He ruled on several cases that gave women inheritance rights equal to men and increased ease of settlers to claim property. Hemphill believed that the law must not be used to oppress but instead be used to recognize the rights of all citizens. Overall, he believed that a judge must act with honor and that the law must be exercised with respect to evidence and the rights of the people.
As an active supporter of statehood, he attended the state constitutional convention in 1845 and helped draft the new state constitution for Texas as it prepared to become a state. Later changes in the state constitution made the supreme court an elected position rather than an appointed position as it was with federal judicial positions and judgeships in several other states. Hemphill’s popularity did not make this an obstacle. He easily won the election to the position of chief justice in 1851, followed by re-election five years later.
In 1858, the town of Hemphill was named after him in Sabine County and made the county seat. That same year, the state legislature rejected Sam Houston’s bid for re-election to the U. S. Senate and instead elected Hemphill to succeed him in the Senate.
However, his time in Washington did not last long. Two years later, as Texas seceded from the Union, Hemphill openly supported secession and was expelled from the Senate along with other southern supporters of secession. Texas immediately chose him to represent Texas at the new Provisional Confederate Congress. Hemphill served on the Judiciary and Finance committees but failed to win a full term in the fall 1861 election.
Hemphill died in 1862. In 1876, the state legislature honored his service by naming Hemphill County, located in the Panhandle, after him.