ST. JOSEPH — A fair man. Kind to everyone. A brilliant mind.
Those are just some of the words people in the legal field are using to describe the late John T. Hammond.
Hammond, who served on the bench in Berrien County courts for more than 35 years, died June 11 in Ann Arbor. He was 87.
As news of his death made its way through the legal community, other judges, lawyers and police officers began sharing their memories.
Longtime defense lawyer Scott Sanford described Hammond as a man who loved the law.
“He was my golf partner for years,” Sanford said. “He was much better at the law than at the game of golf, but he had a true passion for both.”
Bridgman Police Chief Daniel Unruh called Hammond, “One of the most brilliant minds and knowledgeable people I’ve ever met in my 43 years in law enforcement.”
Unruh said Hammond ran a very professional courtroom and wasn’t afraid to ask questions while police were testifying.
“One of his quotes that has always stuck with me during a sentencing is, ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse.’ There will never be another like Judge Hammond,” Unruh said.
Hammond graduated from Benton Harbor High School in 1950 and from the University of Michigan law school in 1958. He joined his father’s law practice in Benton Harbor, and six years later was elected Berrien County prosecutor.
He was elected as a district judge in 1968 at age 36, and retired as the longest serving judge in Michigan.
Hammond authored numerous articles on criminal law topics that were published in state and professional publications, and some of his case law decisions are cited in current law school textbooks.
Lawyers who practiced before Hammond say they appreciated his thorough knowledge of the law and his fairness and impartiality.
“I had the privilege of working from time to time as a prosecutor in Judge Hammond’s court for some 15 years,” said Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic. “Early on I was in awe of his intelligence. We were lucky to have him as a jurist in our county for over 30 years. He contributed to statewide justice initiatives and was a steady hand in local judicial decisions.”
Added Sepic: “Judge Hammond represented our judiciary well in an era when judges naturally commanded respect from the lawyers, litigants and the public.”
Berrien County Trial Court Judge Gary Bruce said Hammond was, first and foremost, “a legal scholar.”
“He studied the law for his entire career and knew it better than any attorney or judge I’ve ever encountered,” Bruce said.
While the rest of us would ask, ‘Isn’t there a statute that says such and such?’ or ‘Isn’t there a case from the Supreme Court on that point?’ Judge Hammond would cite the statue or case by number, page and date,” Bruce said.
Bruce said that in discussing a particular statute, Hammond could also cite the legislative history behind it.
“Judge Hammond moved at his own pace, but when he rendered his decisions you couldn’t find fault with his reasoning even if you disagreed with the outcome.”
Bruce said Hammond was not given to lecturing litigants, but was always willing to give someone a chance to prove themselves, especially young people.
“Nearly his entire life was devoted to the law and the court. The part that wasn’t, was devoted to his family and the University of Michigan football team,” Bruce said.
On a humorous note, Bruce said Hammond didn’t carry his golf clubs in a bag.
“He invented a contraption that held his clubs in kind of a rack, with two spikes in the bottom so he could stick it in the ground,” Bruce recalls. “And he had a suction cup on the end of his putter so he could pick the ball up out of the hole without having to bend over.”
Family members have said a memorial service for Judge Hammond will be held at a later date at First Congregational Church in St. Joseph.