Farmington Hills municipal law expert retires from a ground-breaking career

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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. 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  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.

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 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 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...” These included 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, cast a regular presence at city and township meetings, offering on-the-spot legal guidance to 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 pursues 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 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. It also opened doors to the world of politics; Hampton served 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...”

But first there was law school. Hampton, whose mother Mildred was a teacher, obtained his J.D. from Wayne State University Law School and practiced law with his father 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 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 spotlight. Impressed with his 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 Lt. Governor Milliken to plan our strategy for getting the Governor’s programs through...”

He enjoyed a two-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. Near the end, 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 encouraged Hampton  to run for lieutenant governor in the 1970 election with William Milliken. The choice came down to Hampton and James Brickley, and Milliken opted for the latter, hoping that Brickley would help him with two key voting blocks.

“...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.”

Later that year Governor Milliken appointed him to an opening on the Oakland County Circuit Court. At age 32, Hampton would once again break ground as the youngest judge in the state.

Said Hampton, “I thoroughly enjoyed my work on the bench and for several years served as chief judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court... a tremendous learning experience.”

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. Hampton served as chairman of the board of Cranbrook Schools for two years and watched his children excel academically.

Daughter Mary is now an attorney living in the Washington, D.C. area, and son Brad lives in Manhattan where he works in the art and entertainment professions. Daughter Sarah manages an upscale restaurant in Traverse City.

Hampton and his wife, Lanie Anderson, have been married for 23 years and share a love of the law. She also was an attorney with Secrest Wardle, specializing in appellate and municipal work.

Over the years Hampton has held a number of important state posts, 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 six years on the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board, the last two as chairman. He also has regularly served as a court-appointed arbitrator.

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