Originally created 12/13/04

Oldest S.C. lawyer still loves the law



COLUMBIA, S.C. - Henry Hammer goes to work every day in his downtown Columbia law office, neatly dressed in a suit and tie.

He spends his time working on cases or giving advice to his lawyer-son and others in his firm. For his hobby - if you want to call it that - he pores over the latest U.S. and state Supreme Court rulings.

The 5-foot-6 Hammer moves a little slowly and has reduced his work days to four or five hours. But his love of the law hasn't waned in the almost 71 years he has been a practicing attorney.

Hammer, 94 (he was born Oct. 10, 1910), is the oldest practicing lawyer in South Carolina, according to the state Supreme Court and South Carolina Bar. He said he can't imagine doing anything else and is not considering retirement.

"He exemplifies everything decent and good about this profession," Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said during a recent court ceremony honoring him. She described him as a "South Carolina treasure."

Hammer is well-known in legal circles, though he describes himself as a "low-key" attorney. He made his legal mark primarily in the appellate courts, which typically don't receive as much public attention as the trial courts.

"It takes someone singing the song, but it also takes someone writing the music," said former law partner Kermit King, 73, of Columbia, who has known Hammer for more than 40 years. "People say lawyers tend to fall into two broad categories: people lawyers or paper lawyers.... He's the greatest paper lawyer I've ever known."

Hammer has legal accomplishments many other attorneys would envy.

He has won four cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including a 1958 ruling that continues to be a standard lesson at law schools nationwide. The nation's top court hears only about 100 of the thousands of cases it receives a year, and most attorneys never appear before it.

He has argued at least 66 cases before the state Supreme Court - a record number for any South Carolina lawyer in the 20th century, according to Toal.

He was one of the first South Carolina trial lawyers to win verdicts in state courts of at least $100,000 and $1 million, said Howard Hammer, 59, who has been with his father's nearly 60-year-old law firm for more than 30 years.

The elder Hammer says the law has always fascinated him.

"It's people, people, people," he said. "There are a lot of human elements in law books."

In what he says was his biggest case, known as Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Electric Cooperative, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that people suing in federal court were entitled to jury trials in certain cases where state laws conflict with that right.

Hammer's three other victories in the top court, which involved worker liability claims against railroads or corporate reorganization issues also happened in the 1950s.

Hammer said his wife, Eleanor Bernstein Hammer, and his sons attended the court hearings in the nation's capital. "I'm a family man," he said. "I liked to have them with me."

Hammer's two other sons, Alvin, 57, of Charleston, and Stanley, 50, of High Point, N.C., also are lawyers.

Hammer grew up in Passaic, N.J., with his older brother, who became a judge, and three sisters, all of whom are deceased. He graduated from high school at 16 and earned his law degree from Fordham University Law School in New York.

His father, a tailor who emigrated from Europe, died at age 50 during Hammer's freshman year at law school; his mother died at 54. Hammer started his law career in New Jersey in February 1934 at the age of 23.

World War II would eventually bring him to Columbia, where he met his wife during a service at a synagogue. They have been married 62 years.

During the war, Hammer served as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General's office at Fort Jackson. While there, he prosecuted people whom he said pretended to be conscientious objectors to avoid military service.

After the war, Hammer opened his private practice in Columbia with the late Henry Edens, a former assistant U.S. attorney with whom he worked while stationed at Fort Jackson. Other partners would come and go through the years; his son Howard joined him in the early 1970s.

Hammer said a lot has changed in the legal field over the decades, such as the availability of opportunities for women. But he admits he hasn't kept up with technology. He doesn't own a cell phone and doesn't know how to use a computer. He said he typically writes his legal briefs - each usually totaling dozens of pages - in longhand for a secretary to type.

He laments what he describes as a breakdown in civility among lawyers, saying he supports a new lawyer oath that emphasizes "common courtesy." The state Supreme Court is requiring all practicing lawyers in the state to take that oath. The court held a special ceremony recently for Hammer during which he took it. About 10 members of his family attended; Toal administered it.

Hammer said he has no plans to quit working. He is on his third pacemaker since 1987 but has remained healthy by watching what he eats and walking a half-hour every day in his home.

"I don't tell my age to everyone because they might be worried about hiring an old man," he said.