The Honorable Karen J. Williams died on November 2, 2013, at her home in Orangeburg, South Carolina. She was 62.
Born in Orangeburg, Judge Williams remained closely tied to the community throughout her life. She received her B.A. from Columbia College in 1972, and taught English and social studies in South Carolina before deciding to pursue a legal career. After graduating at the top of her class from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1980, she entered the practice of law in Orangeburg.
In 1992, at age 40, Judge Williams was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to a seat vacated by Robert Foster Chapman. Upon her confirmation, she became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In 2007, she became the first woman to serve as Chief Judge and served in that capacity until her resignation in 2009, after a diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease.
Judge Williams' portrait, which hangs in the Richmond Courthouse, was dedicated in December 2009 at a ceremony attended by more than 40 of her former law clerks. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III remarked on that occasion that Judge Williams "brought warmth, refinement, dignity, and grace to the judicial process, which can sometimes be perceived as hard and cold." Judge Paul V. Niemeyer described her as a Chief Judge who "acted with a gentle and elegant hand, acting from consensus and with good sense." Judge Williams was remembered yesterday by Judge Allyson K. Duncan not only as a superb jurist but as a person who always gave without thought of the cost.
Judge Williams' warmth, graciousness and genuine involvement in the lives of those who came in contact with her are now memorialized in a tradition of the judges gathering for coffee several times a year at the beginning of court sessions.