ORANGEBURG, SC — Karen Johnson Williams, a native of South Carolina who rose to become the first female chief judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 4th Circuit, died Saturday morning after a battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She was 62.
Williams, a 1972 graduate of Columbia College, was appointed to the Fourth Circuit by President George H.W. Bush. She was the first woman to serve as chief judge in the Fourth Circuit. She was appointed on the recommendation of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.
In 2007, Williams became the chief judge for the Court of Appeals, the circuit of which also includes Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and North Carolina.
She retired in July 2009 as chief judge as she revealed she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“She was a true legal pioneer,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Hutto practiced with Williams for about a decade at the Williams & Williams law firm in Orangeburg.
“It was really remarkable that she came from a small practice in Orangeburg to elevate to such a high level in the legal community,” Hutto said.
Williams taught school before earning her law degree at USC. In 1992, at the age of 40, she was appointed to the federal bench. In 2005, she made President George W. Bush’s short list for a U.S. Supreme Court opening.
Hutto said people who knew Williams knew about her grace, dignity and poise.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who visited Williams a month ago, said the former judge will be deeply missed by the legal community.
“She’s really an iconic figure,” Toal said Saturday.
Toal called Williams an “especially talented lawyer” who had a wonderful touch in the courtroom, breaking down points of the law with ease.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Williams was very smart, respected and elegant.
“And she will be missed by all of us,” Nettles said.
Williams and her husband had been married for about 45 years, have four children and nine grandchildren, Hutto said.
Even though she spent some of her career traveling to Richmond several times a month, Hutto said she was still very involved with her family, even making it to her kids’ athletic events.
Hutto said many of the female lawyers he knows looked up to Williams for having a family and being a star in the legal community.
Williams was renowned for being able to absorb the complexities of medical malpractice cases, Hutto said. She combined her legal knowledge with all of the medical terminology she needed to defend doctors in a court room, he said.
When Williams was diagnosed she stepped down even though she was still functioning well, Hutto said. She never wanted anybody to question a ruling that she made, he said.
After her retirement, Williams returned to her hometown of Orangeburg. Her family rallied for her, advocating for a cure and treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
In a 2010 interview, Williams said, “I come to the office. Sometimes, I play with the dogs; sometimes I play with the children.” Her family has raised thousands of dollars on behalf of her.
Services for Karen Johnson Williams
Visitation will be 5-7 p.m., Sunday at Willbrook Plantation, 2464 Five Chop Road (U.S. Highway 301 South) in Orangeburg.
Funeral service will begin at 11 a.m. Monday at First Baptist Church, 1240 Russell St., Orangeburg.
Betsey Guzior contributed to this story.