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Judge. Lawyer. Soldier. Legislator. Coach. Historian.
The Honorable James E. Lockemy has held many titles throughout his 47-year career. One term many might say describes him best is teacher. Spend any time with the gregarious Dillon County native and you’re sure to get a history lesson, sprinkled with literary references and always a few laughs. On a recent warm November day at the South Carolina Court of Appeals, prior to his retirement from the bench, Lockemy quoted William Wordsworth and referenced Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. when giving a tour of his chambers. He had just wrapped up a morning hearing oral arguments in the stately courtroom where he presided as chief judge since 2016.
Lockemy, who retired at the end of December 2021 after serving as a South Carolina circuit court judge, appellate judge and chief appeals judge, grew up in the Newtown community of Dillon County with dreams of teaching history. It was encouragement from his father, a member of Lumbee Tribe who did not complete first grade but ran a successful grocery store and supported the young Lockemy’s college education, that inspired Judge Lockemy to attend law school and set out on a historic career in the law that has positively impacted our state.
Another key designation Lockemy holds is South Carolina’s first Native American chief judge of the Court of Appeals.
“I still think back and hope I did things that made my parents proud and became something that my Native American father would say ‘you’re one of us, son,’” Lockemy said. “And that my mother would say ‘you’ve worked hard.’ I loved my parents, and they always encouraged me to make a difference in life. I do hope I have made a difference in my life and especially in the law.”
Lockemy has received numerous honors including the Order of the Palmetto, the Army’s Legion of Merit, Outstanding Alumni and Distinguished Service Award at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, Dillon County Citizen of the Year, and Dillon County Veteran of the Year. He has appeared in several theater productions throughout the Pee Dee including at Florence Little Theatre where he received the Best Actor Award for his leading role in “The Amistad Case.”
His most recent honor occurred the night of his retirement ceremony when the Native American Law Student Association Chapter at the UofSC School of Law re-named itself after him.
He said being a judge has been an honor and he enjoyed his time on the South Carolina Court of Appeals and the Circuit Court, where he visited every county but three— Bamberg, Oconee and Saluda. For lawyers aspiring to serve on the bench, Lockemy shares that the position comes with tremendous honor and responsibility.
Always remember your duty of humility, he says to would-be judges.
“It’s not fact that you put that robe on and it gives you some sort of superpowers,” he said. “That robe just signifies that you represent the law. If you are going to use your authority to represent the law, you need to do it with humility, you need to be very much aware of your responsibilities to do what’s right.”
Fourth Circuit Assistant Solicitor Shipp Daniel learned a critical lesson about how to treat others on his very first day as Judge Lockemy’s clerk that illustrates the judge’s philosophy.
“He told me that the most important thing I needed to remember was that people often rely on his signature to be released from prison,” Daniel recalled. “He told me to check the mail every single day, and if we received any legal document requiring his signature before someone was to be released from incarceration, I was to drop everything I was doing and find him, have him sign it, and get the document to the right place. ‘Once people have paid their debt to society, they shouldn’t serve one second longer in jail waiting on paperwork. So, find me,’ he said.
“While I learned all sorts of legal principles under Judge Lockemy’s tutelage, what he imparted most was just the right way to treat people in our criminal justice system.”
Beyond the robe, Lockemy is known in the legal community and beyond for his giving spirit and warm nature.
“James truly loves people, and they can feel it,” says Judge Aphrodite Konduros, who served with him on the South Carolina Court of Appeals. “I have been lucky enough to walk into rooms, courtrooms, classrooms and receptions with him for many years, and there is a collective brightening when they realize he has arrived. He has a great memory for faces and names, and cherishes his former law clerks and students, and puts total strangers at ease. He loves history and has dates and facts on the tip of his tongue and relates to people by knowing something important, or obscure, about their name, town or county. It is charming to watch people blossom under his sincere enthusiasm for his fellow man.”
Read the full version of this story in January 2022's SC Lawyer magazine.