John Hanson Briscoe, who served as speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and as a circuit court judge in St. Mary’s County, died New Year’s Day at his Hollywood home.
Briscoe, 79, struggled with cancer for more than a year. His death this week brought remembrances of how he brought the skills in mediation that he honed in Annapolis, to the courthouse in Leonardtown.
Shortly after he took the bench in the beginning of 1986, Briscoe established a pattern of entering the courtroom after the scheduled 9:30 a.m. start of the day’s docket, but only because a large number of civil cases already had been resolved that morning in his chambers.
“That’s bringing the attorneys from both sides in before the trial, reviewing the case with them, and without rendering a decision [or] coercing the parties, indicate the court’s impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides,” Briscoe said in an interview that year. “I get them closer and closer together, and talking with each other.”
Former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel (D), whose years leading the state’s government coincided with much of Briscoe’s time in Annapolis, said Thursday that Briscoe took that approach with fellow legislators.
“He was able to make people come together, and make them understand he was not preferring one over the other,” Mandel said. “He would put the information together, based on what they told him. He listened to both sides and tried to find common ground.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) was president of the Maryland Senate when Briscoe was speaker of the house from 1973 to 1979. “He was such a positive partner and such an easy person to work with, always thoughtful and calm,” Hoyer said. “John was a blessing and a delight to work with. We’ll miss him. We’ll miss his humor. We’ll miss his wisdom. We’ll miss his sense of history.”
Marvin Kaminetz, an active retired circuit court judge who was Briscoe’s law partner before they both were appointed to the bench in the 1980s, said that they took an approach toward pretrial resolution of cases by necessity.
“It was all about moving dockets, and being conservation-minded with the [court] time that we had. Judge Briscoe was a master at that,” Kaminetz said Thursday. “We would discuss [with a case’s lawyers] what could happen and what the outcome might be. They [would] go back and talk to their clients, ... [and] they worked it out.”
Briscoe’s appointment in 1986, followed by the creation of a second judgeship and Kaminetz’s appointment, led to a track record of decisions that Kaminetz said reflected a consistency, both individually and collectively.
“They [the lawyers] knew what we were likely to do,” Kaminetz said. “We sort of did things the same way.”
Neither Briscoe, appointed by then-Gov. Harry Hughes (D), nor Kaminetz faced any opposition to their subsequent elections to a 15-year term on the bench. Briscoe began his active-retired status with the court in 2002, about a year before his term was scheduled to end. “I left because I was ready to go,” he said the following winter.
Briscoe’s return to the courtroom after that was very limited, mostly for ceremonial occasions and no more than a couple of reconsiderations of sentences he’d given in earlier cases. Briscoe occasionally held reconsideration hearings on criminal cases throughout his active service on the bench, noting on one occasion in a courthouse hallway that the sentences originally handed down had made their impact, penalizing the criminal and sending a message to the public.
Throughout the 1990s, Briscoe was a vocal opponent of the county’s decision to renovate and expand the courthouse in downtown Leonardtown, favoring instead the creation of a new courthouse at the governmental center, where a temporary courthouse actually was constructed and used during the work on the older building. The temporary courthouse structure, now called the Patuxent Building, currently houses the sheriff’s office and some county agencies.
When he left the bench about 11 years ago, Briscoe still contended that the downtown courthouse eventually will need more room and more parking than is available.
“We never, never wanted to abandon that [original] courthouse. Our plan was to keep that as a historic courtroom site, ... and possibly a functional courtroom,” Kaminetz said this week. “We obviously made the best of it, ... to make it functional and secure. We moved on [from the issue]. We knew we were going to be there.”
Briscoe’s vacations and retirement included visits with friends he’d made throughout his dual careers, relationships not defined by profession or political party. Briscoe also supported a variety of civic and historic causes throughout his adult life.
Maryland State Sen. Roy Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert) said St. Clement’s Island would probably be washed away today if it were not for Briscoe’s preservation efforts as a state lawmaker. First elected as a Maryland delegate in 1962, Briscoe “saved Maryland’s birthplace,” Dyson said, where Maryland settlers held Mass on March 25, 1634 before establishing St. Mary’s City. “He was instrumental in getting that riprap around St. Clement’s Island. Almost the entire island today is riprapped,” Dyson said. The island was once said to be about 400 acres, but is now 62 acres.
As speaker of the House of Delegates, Briscoe was “truly the last leader in the general assembly that understood rural people and rural issues,” Dyson said.
Hoyer, like many others, recently visited with Briscoe at his home. “I really loved John Briscoe. He died peacefully and he died at peace,” Hoyer said.
“He was a true modern-day statesman and he’ll truly be missed,” Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said of Briscoe.