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Steven I. Platt: The legacy of John Hanson Briscoe

On Jan. 1, John Hanson Briscoe Sr., 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, passed from among us.

From that day until his funeral on Jan. 8, everywhere that his family, friends and former judicial colleagues (including this writer) gathered, they told stories. So did his former law partners, Briscoe’s mutually adopted “brothers” — the Hon. James A. Kenney III and the Hon. Marvin Kaminetz, both now retired from the bench. So did priests, governors, congressmen, state legislators, classmates and neighbors.

The stories? “Judge Briscoe” stories. “Speaker Briscoe” stories. “Mr. Speaker” stories. Quail hunting stories. Political stories. Lawyer stories. St. Mary’s Academy Class of ’52 stories. And, most endearing, “family stories.”

50-year career

John Hanson Briscoe’s obituary was widely published. It recited his professional history of accomplishments and recognition that spanned more than 50 years, including his years as a member of the House of Delegates. He was elected in 1962 and rose to become speaker from 1973 until 1979.

In 1979, he decided not to seek re-election to the House with the announcement: “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 he went back to his legal career as president of what was then the Law Offices of Briscoe, Kenney, Kaminetz and Lacer. In December 1985, Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed him to succeed St. Mary’s County Circuit Judge Joseph A. Mattingly.

What is striking about the accolades in the obituaries — echoed in the eulogies by judges Kenney and Kaminetz at his funeral, as well as in off-the-cuff conversations with family and friends from every walk of life — is their consistency. It was 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 president of the Maryland Senate from 1975 to 1979, much of the time John Hanson Briscoe was speaker of the House. Here are three quotes from Hoyer’s articles in The Baltimore Sun and 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.”

‘Honorable and smart’

This theme was echoed by former Gov. 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 Gov. Marvin Mandel: “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 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 pointed out in his eulogy, 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,” said Kaminetz.

Judge Kenney shed some 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 this: Whether you knew him as John, John Hanson, Johnny, Dad, Uncle John, Grandad, Great-Grandad, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Speaker, Counselor or 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-granddaughter and 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.

Strong mentor

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 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, who 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, and my significant other, Francie Glendening, whose father served in the 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.

The breeze and the wind

I also found the insight that I wanted from Albom’s book. In it, 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 the “afterlife.”

The first lesson 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. knew that instinctively and lived by it. John’s 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 in stories about him told many times before and since his recent death. In turn, each of has our own story, and John Hanson Briscoe is in all of them.

For John Hanson Briscoe, 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.

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at [email protected]