Ground-breaking: Former judge capped career as legal leader

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In the corner of Bill Hampton’s office stood a shovel. A shiny shovel, inscribed with words that said a lot about the scope of his legal career. It was a prized possession that spoke volumes about the caliber of work that the former senior partner at Secrest Wardle produced over decades as one of the finest municipal lawyers in the state.

In a sense, it was symbolic of his stature as a ground-breaking attorney whose legacy will be long remembered by friends and colleagues after his passing last month at the age of 84.

His work for cities, townships, and county agencies was so highly regarded over the years that he was honored by the State Bar of Michigan with the Michael J. Franck Award in 2007 and the coveted Professionalism Award and the Distinguished Career Achievement Award from the Oakland County Bar Association.

But that shovel reflected the depths that Hampton would go to serve his clients, in this case the Oakland County Drain Commission. It was proof positive that they valued his legal counsel so much that they elected to name a county drain after him.

“A drain, not a sewer,” Hampton was quick to point out during an interview with The Legal News in the summer of 2008.

The somewhat dubious legal distinction came in 1989, some 12 years after he entered private practice following a six-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 six years in Lansing.

Still, Hampton always admitted to a special fondness for that shovel, which was used in the ground-breaking ceremony for the drain the City of Rochester Hills. 

It was 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 ground-breaking role that Hampton played in helping establish Secrest Wardle as one of the premier municipal law firms in Michigan.

When Hampton joined the firm in 1977, it was focused mainly on insurance defense work. That changed when Hampton saw an opportunity to generate business for the firm in municipal law since there were few lawyers specializing in that kind of work. 

Shortly after he was named city attorney for Bloomfield Hills, Hampton was chosen to lead the legal charge for Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield Township, and the City of Auburn Hills, clients he would represent for more than 40 years.

Attorney Gordon Snavely, who spent four years in private practice with Hampton before he was appointed to the Circuit Court bench, has particularly fond memories of his longtime friend whose legal career spanned more than 58 years.

“Bill came across as a common man who possessed an uncommon ability for great lawyering,” said Snavely, who spent the bulk of his career specializing in estate law and probate work. “He was well respected in addition to being well liked. He was without peers. When the term ‘good guy’ was coined, they had him in mind. I was always very appreciative of his efforts to help me get started in the legal profession.” 

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 and a lifelong admiration of 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.

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

In 1964, at the tender age of 26, Hampton claimed a seat in the State Legislature, easily winning a two-year term in the then traditionally Republican district of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. 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 gubernatorial candidate George Romney won in a landslide over incumbent John Swainson, 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 in the 2008 interview. “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.”

Prominent Bloomfield Hills attorney George Googasian, a past president of the State Bar, went to school with Hampton at Pontiac High and reconnected with him years later when they were in the initial stages of their professional careers.

“Bill was a Republican and I was a Democrat, but we never clashed politically,” said Googasian. “He was a Republican who was interested in the public good, and was fair-minded and open-minded about the issues and was always willing to listen to different views.”

Those qualities were put to good use by Hampton when he was appointed to the bench, Googasian said.

“There was some reservation in the legal community when he was appointed,” said Googasian. “He was thought to be a political lawyer and not a lawyer’s lawyer. But he quickly dispelled any of those concerns, becoming a magnificent judge with a sense of fairness and a sense of purpose. As a lawyer, you knew you were going to get a fair shot when you appeared before him, and that he would thoughtful and reasonable in considering each case.”

Hampton’s loyalty to the Republican cause would be rewarded in 1970 when then 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. 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.”

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,” he said.

In 1977, Hampton returned to private practice to help support a family with three young children, each of whom would eventually graduate from Cranbrook, one of the top college prep academies in the country. Hampton served as chairman of the board at Cranbrook for two years and watched his children excel academically throughout their careers there.

Attorney Gerald Fisher, a past president of the Oakland County Bar Foundation and a noted property law expert, was a former colleague of Hampton’s at Secrest Wardle, where the two developed a mutual admiration society.

“It was my great pleasure to have known Bill Hampton from the time I was a young lawyer – which is many years ago. It was my greater pleasure to have been close friends and law partners for 20 years in the Secrest Wardle law firm,” said Fisher. “Bill was a larger-than-life person who would command attention simply by walking into a room – including a courtroom. He was a terrific circuit judge, who always afforded fairness to the parties, and decided cases with wisdom.

“There are so many memories,” Fisher said of his friendship with Hampton. “We vacationed together in Florida and Northern Michigan on many occasions. One special memory was a day when Bill and I appeared together in the Michigan Supreme Court on behalf of the Charter Township of West Bloomfield. I was going to argue the case to the court, but when the case was called, Bill leaned over to me and said, ‘Fisher, I’ve done my part, now it’s time for you to really perform today.’ I had written the brief in the case, and now I was going to present the oral argument. So naturally I asked: ‘Bill, what was your part?’ His response practically left me unable to present argument to the court with a straight face. He said with the classic Hampton smile, ‘Last week at a judges’ meeting, I gave a big hug to Justice Riley and Justice Boyle, who are both sitting on the Supreme Court today!’ We won the case, and I’ll never know which one of us played the bigger part in the victory.”

An avid golfer and boater, Hampton enjoyed a lifelong passion for travel, visiting all seven continents at least once and many times to his favorites. 

Hampton is survived by his wife, Lanie Anderson; three children, Mary Mulvenon (James), William, and Sarah Bielman (Karl); and four grandchildren.

A visitation took place last moth at Lynch & Sons in Clawson. A private committal ceremony was held at White Chapel Cemetery.


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