The Legacy of Judge Speaker John Hanson Briscoe

On January 1, 2014, the former Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court for St. Mary’s County, Judge of the Seventh Circuit Court of Maryland, and Speaker of the House of Delegates of Maryland, John Hanson Briscoe, Sr. passed from among us.  From that day until he was taken to his final resting place after his funeral on January 8, 2014, everywhere that his family, friends, former judicial colleagues and friends (like this writer), former law partners and mutually adopted “brothers,” the Honorable James Kenney (Ret.) and the Honorable Marvin Kaminetz (Ret.), as well as priests, governors, congressmen, state legislators, classmates and neighbors gathered, they told stories… “Judge Briscoe stories,” “Speaker Briscoe  (“Mr. Speaker”) stories,” “Quail Hunting Stories,” “political stories,” “lawyer stories,” “ St. Mary’s Academy Class of ’52 stories,” and most endearing “family stories.”

John Hanson Briscoe’s obituary which was widely published, recited his professional history of accomplishments and recognition which spanned over 50 years, including his years as a member of the House of Delegates, elected in 1962, rising to become Speaker of the House of Delegates from 1973 until 1979.  In 1979, he decided not to seek re-election to the House announcing at the time “I’m not one of those people who eats, drinks and breathes politics.” He then returned to his natural habitat, his 300 acre farm overlooking the Patuxent River which has been in his family since 1871 and to his legal career as President of the Law Firm of Briscoe, Kenney, Kaminetz and Lacer.  In December 1985, Governor Harry R. Hughes appointed John Hanson Briscoe, Sr. to succeed St. Mary’s County Circuit Judge Joseph A. Mattingly.

What is striking about the accolades that the life and accomplishments of John Hanson Briscoe received in the obituaries which were echoed in the eulogies by his “brothers,” Judges James Kenney and Marvin Kaminetz at his funeral as well as just plain off the cuff conversations with family and friends from every walk and station in life is their consistency.  That consistency was obviously in no way contrived nor even planned or prepared.  Rather it was like the humanity of John Hanson Briscoe spontaneous and heartfelt.

Perhaps it was best summed up by Congressman Steny H. Hoyer who served as State Senate President from 1975 to 1979, much of the time John Hanson Briscoe was Speaker of the House Representative Hoyer said in The Baltimore Sun and in the Southern Maryland News—“I think the fact of the matter is that John Hanson Briscoe was a very decent human being and everyone respected and liked him.”—“Even though he was laid-back and quiet, he had a very decisive vision for Southern Maryland and the state that went far beyond local parochial politics”—“We’ll miss him.  We’ll miss his humor. We’ll miss his wisdom.  We’ll miss his sense of history.”

This theme was echoed without prompting by former Governor Harry H. Hughes who said, “He was very honorable and smart and I’m really glad that I can call him a good friend.” And by former Governor Marvin Mandel who said, “He was able to make people come together and make them understand that he was not preferring one over the other.  He would put the information together, based on what they told him.  He listened to both sides and tried to find common ground.”

Those skills and the lofty purposes for which they were deployed first as a legislator were carried back into his law practice in 1979 and then onto the St Mary’s County Bench in 1986.  As Judge Kaminetz in his Eulogy pointed out—John Hanson Briscoe was mediating before it became fashionable let alone a profession. He did so out of “necessity” in order to move dockets fairly and efficiently.  “Judge Briscoe was a master at that.”

Judge Kenney provided further insight into how this skilled mediator and statesman combined these roles when he recounted, “Whether you were a family member, a schoolmate, a hunting and fishing companion, a lawyer, a legislator or a judge, there were things that you could count on”—“He would always tell you what you needed to hear even if it was not always what you wanted to hear”—“If he was your lawyer, you would receive his best advice and best efforts”—“ If you appeared in his courtroom, whether as a clerk, a bailiff, a juror, a witness or as an attorney or litigant, you would be listened to and treated fairly and courteously.”

What all of these stories, pictures, and the lessons drawn from them tell us, simply put, is whether you knew him as John, John Hanson, Johnny, Dad, Uncle John, Grandad, Great Grandad, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Speaker, Counselor, Judge, John Hanson Briscoe was a wonderful human being and a joy to know.  His essential humanity and his tremendous capacity to care deeply about his wife Bonnie, his children, his grandchildren, his great grandchildren, his great granddaughter, his friends as well as the people who were affected by his personal, political legal, and judicial decisions were apparent to all he encountered and they loved and respected him for that.

This writer had the honor and the pleasure of knowing and observing him as Speaker, lawyer, judge and most importantly as a friend.  He mentored and encouraged me whenever we met and I always wondered why I felt as close to him as I did considering we did not see each other as much as I frankly would have liked.  I guess it was because I too felt his warmth and humanity.

For that reason when I learned that Judge Briscoe was ill perhaps terminally so, I did two things.  I lobbied for a dinner together with his “brothers,” Judges Kaminetz and Kenney, whom I knew would need to be involved to do the intricate planning and logistics including reserving the right table and checking the menu with the chef that John Hanson required for dinners or lunches with his friends in recent years.  I also looked for insight to the same source that had provided comfort and consolation when others in my family and close friends approached their end— the book,  “Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom also the author of “Tuesdays With Morrie”.  I got my wish!

I got my Final Dinner with John Hanson and his wife, Bonnie, my “Significant Other,” Francie Glendenning, whose father served in the Maryland General Assembly with Speaker Briscoe.  Judge and Mrs. Kaminetz joined us as well.  It was, as expected, a delightful and memorable evening of excellent food with good friends and lots of stories.

I also found the further insight that I wanted from Mitch Albom’s book, “The Five People You Meet In Heaven.”  In that book the lead character “Eddie” dies and goes to heaven.  He meets five people each of whom teaches him about his life and its relationship to what he styles as the “afterlife.”

The first lesson “Eddie” learns when he gets to heaven is that we are all connected.  “You can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.”  John Hanson Briscoe, Sr. obviously instinctively knew that and lived by it.  Johns wife Bonnie, his children, his grandchildren, his great granddaughter, his law clerks, his judicial colleagues, his fellow legislators, the governors he served with, the special 56 St. Mary’s Academy classmates of the class of 1952, the lawyers he presided over and the many friends that he worked and played hard with are all in pictures with him or stories about him told many times before and since his recent death.  In turn each of has our own story and John Hanson Briscoe in all of them.

For John Hanson Briscoe, then, our stories are one story and because of the way he lived, it is his story and continues through us.

Goodbye Judge Briscoe!  Many of our lives were and still are being shaped by you.  We cannot and will not forget you as we live them out.