Eugene Hamilton confronted some of the worst in young people from his seat on the bench.
But Hamilton didn’t let it pull him down, his friends and colleagues said Wednesday — his compassion and concern for juveniles in a court system that sometimes forgot them became his hallmark as the chief judge for the District of Columbia Superior Court, earning the name “the People’s Judge.”
The People’s Judge died in November at age 78, still serving as a superior court judge. His life and service were honored Wednesday at the Superior Court courthouse in Washington, with several friends remembering him as a judge, a lawyer, a tennis partner and father.
Attorney General Eric Holder, himself a former D.C. Superior Court judge, recalled his relationship with Hamilton.
“During his years on the bench, he had mastered the art of being firm, but fair. He believed in the importance of second chances, but not third ones.,” Holder said to family, friends and colleagues assembled in the courthouse atrium. “And he understood the power of a kind word, as well as a good joke.”
Hamilton was born in 1933 in Memphis, Tenn. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Illinois and began his career as a Judge Advocate General Officer in the U.S. Army. He worked in the Department of Justice as a trial attorney in the Civil Division in the 1960s, before he was appointed to the Superior Court in 1970. He served as the court’s Chief Judge from 1993 to 2000, becoming only the second African American to do so. He also taught at Harvard and American universities.
Holder highlighted Hamilton’s commitment to better serving the district’s youth, creating an “open community court” and establishing a pilot program for nonviolent juvenile offenders and an advisory committee that developed standards for lawyers representing children and parents in neglect cases. He also prioritized and bolstered the court’s domestic violence unit, which was among the first of its kind in the country, said Rufus King, former Chief Judge of the Superior Court from 2000 to 2008.
“Over the course of his career, his dedication to protecting and empowering young people not only improved the lives of many who came into contact with this court — it inspired policymakers, elected officials, attorneysand this Attorney General to help make the improvements that our children need and deserve — a fight that is, and will continue to be, a top priority for today’s Justice Department,” Holder said.
In addition to their nine children, Hamilton and his wife Virginia also served as foster parents for more than 40 children in the District of Columbia and Maryland.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that Hamilton rose out of the segregated South to lead a good life at home and on the bench in DC.
“He loved the court almost as much as the people who came through it,” she said. “No case was a mere docket number — his cases were his people.”
He took his “people’s judge” mentality outside of the courtroom, too. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan for the District of Columbia spoke deliberately, holding back tears, as he told the story of a funeral he and Hamilton attended. Sullivan said he received a call from a pastor in Southeast D.C. asking him to speak at the service for a slain youth, as he feared retaliation for the death by some of the young attendees. Hamilton joined him, and on that day they spoke to a lot of kids who were without a male role model.
“We spoke to a lot of kids. We hugged a lot of kids. We cried with a lot of kids,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he started his own legal career looking to Hamilton as a role model of his own. He said meeting Hamilton — a black man in a judicial robe — was such a positive image as he began his first clerkship.
His mentor later became his colleague and friend on the Superior Court, with the two sharing offices next to one another. Hamilton and Sullivan became members of what they later called the “Sunday morning tennis group.” Everyone in the group’s biggest hope every Sunday? “Gene would be your partner,” Sullivan said.
Current Chief Judge Lee Satterfield, Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, D.C. City Council member Phil Mendelson and D.C. Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, among others, also spoke.