Municipal law expert caps a ground-breaking career


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In the corner of his office stands a shovel.

A shiny shovel, inscribed with words that say a lot about the scope of Bill Hampton’s legal career. It’s a prized possession that speaks volumes about the caliber of work that the recently retired senior partner at Secrest Wardle in Farmington Hills has produced over the past five decades as one of the finest municipal lawyers in the state.

His work for cities, townships, and county agencies has been so widely regarded over the years that he has been honored by the State Bar of Michigan with the Michael J. Franck Award in 2007 and the coveted Professionalism Award from the Oakland County Bar Association the same year. In 2014, the OCBA honored Hampton with the Distinguished Career Achievement Award, while last year he was named the recipient of the Distinguished Municipal Attorney Award from the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys.

Yet that shovel is strangely symbolic of the depths that Hampton would go to serve his clients, in this case the Oakland County Drain Commission. It is proof positive that they valued his legal counsel so much that they chose to name a county drain after him.

“A drain, not a sewer,” Hampton is quick to point out, sporting a twinkle in his eye.

The somewhat dubious legal distinction came in 1989, some 12 years after he entered private practice following a 6-year stint on the Oakland County Circuit Court bench. The judgeship came on the heels of a three-term stay in the State Legislature, where Hampton served as House Majority Leader and House Minority Leader during his 6 years in Lansing.

Still, Hampton admits to a special fondness for that shovel, which was used in the ground-breaking for the drain in the City of Rochester Hills. It is indicative of his willingness to dig deep for the benefit of his clients, whether in matters of water resource management and environmental stewardship or in the increasingly high-stakes area of property tax appeals. It also signified the pivotal role that Hampton has played in helping establish Secrest Wardle as one of the premier municipal law firms in Michigan.

“When I joined the firm in 1977, we were focused mainly on insurance defense work,” Hampton explained. “I saw an opportunity to generate business for our firm in municipal law since there weren’t too many lawyers specializing in that kind of work. I was appointed city attorney for Bloomfield Hills and that led to a number of other municipal clients around Oakland County.”

Shortly after he was named general counsel for Bloomfield Hills, Hampton was chosen to lead the charge for Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield Township, and the City of Auburn Hills. The number would swell in the coming years as the firm’s municipal law practice grew to include more than a dozen attorneys. Hampton, of course, cast a regular presence at various city and township meetings, offering on-the-spot legal guidance to municipal officials while also personally handling many of their litigation matters.

Even in “retirement,” the 79-year-old Hampton will stay busy, agreeing with “Bloomfield Township to perform legal services for them for at least an additional year,” he said.  He also likely will continue to serve as a mediator and arbitrator in an effort “to keep my mind sharp,” and may even take on an occasional visiting judge assignment.

“But for now, it’s time to ‘stop and smell the roses,’” Hampton said while spending time at his winter home in Stuart, Fla., where as an avid golfer he is in pursuit of his first-ever hole-in-one.

“Some day it will come – I hope,” he said with smile.

Hampton, whose father Verne was an attorney, grew up in Pontiac and graduated from the old Pontiac High School. He was class president his senior year and he would hold the same title as a senior at Michigan State University, where he graduated in 1960. His student leadership role at MSU enabled him to strike up a friendship with John Hannah, president of the Big Ten university from 1941-69 and the first chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. It also opened doors to the world of politics in which Hampton would serve as an aide to MSU professor Paul Bagwell in his 1960 Republican bid for governor.

“Bagwell ran for governor in 1958 and lost a close race to G. Mennen Williams,” Hampton related. “At that time, the term for governor was only two years and Bagwell ran again in 1960, challenging Democrat John Swainson. Once again, he lost a tight race, but it was a great experience for me, allowing me to travel around the state throughout the campaign, getting a bird’s-eye view of the political process. It really sparked my interest in politics.”

But first there was law school. Hampton, whose mother Mildred was a teacher, obtained his juris doctor from Wayne State University Law School in 1963 and practiced law with his father in Pontiac before pursuing his political aspirations.

“It was an education, to say the least,” Hampton said of his first term in office.

In 1964, at the tender age of 26, the GOP nominee claimed a seat in the State Legislature, easily winning a 2-year term in the traditionally Republican district of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. His victory was noteworthy in several respects. It came over Democrat John Rogers, a fellow attorney with whom he has lifelong ties. It also flew in the face of a Democratic presidential landslide by Lyndon Johnson’s lopsided defeat of Republican Barry Goldwater. Hampton’s win solidified his place as the youngest member of the House of Representatives, a home for many wily career politicians.

Two years later, in 1966, Republican George Romney won handily over Zolton Ferency, unexpectedly placing Hampton in the political spotlight. Impressed with his smarts and political savvy, Republican legislators elected Hampton House Majority Leader despite his youth.

“It was pretty heady stuff to be the House Majority Leader at age 28,” Hampton admitted. “I was suddenly in a position where I was meeting regularly with Governor Romney and Lieutenant Governor (William) Milliken to plan our strategy for getting the Governor’s programs through the State House.”

He enjoyed a 2-year run as head of the House of Representatives until the Democrats seized control of the State Legislature in the 1968 election, relegating Hampton to House Minority Leader for his final term in Lansing. Near the end of his third term in office, Hampton knew it was time to exit.

“After being there for three terms, I started hearing the same speeches over and over again,” Hampton said. “It was if I came into a movie late, sat through the rest of the show, and then watched the beginning to see what I had missed. When it completed the cycle, I said to myself, ‘This is where I came in and now it’s time to go.’”

Others weren’t quite ready to let Hampton go so quietly, encouraging him to run for lieutenant governor in the 1970 election with GOP gubernatorial candidate William Milliken. The choice came down to Hampton and James Brickley, with Milliken opting for the latter, hoping that Brickley would help him with two key voting blocks.

“I fully understood their political strategy, since Brickley was from Detroit and was Catholic, whereas I was Protestant and from the suburbs,” Hampton said. “It brought balance to the ticket and helped Milliken win the election.”

Hampton’s loyalty to the Republican cause would be rewarded later that year when Governor Milliken appointed him to an opening on the Oakland County Circuit Court, a vacancy created by the elevation of Judge Phillip Pratt to the U.S. District Court bench in Detroit. At age 32, Hampton would once again break ground as the youngest judge in the state.”

“It was rather fortuitous,” Hampton said of his court appointment. “It was not part of any master plan. The chips just fell into place. I thoroughly enjoyed my work on the bench and for several years served as chief judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court. It was a tremendous learning experience.”

During his third year as judge, Hampton appeared destined for an even more coveted judicial post, landing among the finalists for a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court.

“The appointment eventually went to Jim Ryan, but I was truly honored to be one of two finalists for the opening,” Hampton said.

In 1977, Hampton returned to private practice, a move made primarily for financial reasons as the married father of three young children, each of whom would eventually graduate from Cranbrook-Kingswood School, one of the top college-prep academies in the country. Hampton served as chairman of the board of Cranbrook Schools for two years and watched his children excel academically throughout their educational careers there.

Daughter Mary, a graduate of the University of Michigan, is an attorney and lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband, James, and two children. Son Brad, a graduate of New York University, lives in Manhattan where he works in the art and entertainment professions. Daughter Sarah, also an NYU grad, lives in Traverse City with her husband, Karl, and manages an upscale restaurant in the popular northern resort city. The couple has two children.
Hampton and his wife, Lanie Anderson, have been married for 23 years and share a love of the law. She also served as an attorney with Secrest Wardle, specializing in appellate and municipal work with the firm before retiring. She and her husband now enjoy traveling and keeping tabs on their children and grandchildren. They differ, however, when it comes to their favorite Big Ten team.

“We have a mixed marriage,” Hampton said with a smile. “She’s a U of M grad, while I’m MSU through and through.”

Last year, Hampton and his wife treated their children to the Broadway performance of the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” an evening made even more special by the opportunity to meet back stage with Tony Award winning actress Renee Goldsberry, who portrayed Angelica Schuyler Church (the sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton) in the show.

“She was a classmate of my daughter Sarah at Cranbrook and she sang ‘America the Beautiful’ at this year’s Super Bowl,” said Hampton of Goldsberry, who also was a regular on the hit TV program “The Good Wife.”

The legal stage, however, is a thread that runs through Hampton’s family. His late brother, Verne Hampton II, was a prominent attorney with Dickinson Wright, while his brother-in-law, George Kuehn, was a shareholder with Butzel Long before retiring.

Over the years Hampton has held a number of important state posts in the legal community, chairing the State Officers Compensation Commission from 1994-98 and co-chairing the State Bar Committee on Judicial Qualifications from 1990-96. He also served 6 years on the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board, the last two as chairman.

He also has regularly served as a court-appointed arbitrator, helping decide civil cases that otherwise would take years to wind their way through the court system.

“This is one thing I always believed in when I was judge, to rule on matters fairly and quickly,” Hampton said. “The parties to the dispute deserve for justice to be swift.”