Time never stops, even for judges.
The last day of 26 years on the bench was Friday for York County Circuit Judge John C. Hayes III. It was the last court day of 2017, and South Carolina law requires Hayes, 72, to retire because of his age at the end of December.
Hayes worked domestic violence cases in criminal court right through lunch. Then he was told there was no more.
Hayes walked off the bench in his courtroom, hung up his robe in his office, and thought it was over.
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Hayes was wrong.
The courtroom filled with prosecutors and lawyers, clerks and cops. Bailiffs and constables and public defenders filled the seats. A prosecutor called in to Hayes’ law clerk, saying there was one last “crucial” hearing.
A court reporter readied to take an official transcript. A bailiff called out that court was in session.
Hayes walked in from the back of the courtroom, and received a standing ovation.
Maybe for the first time, Hayes was surprised in his courtroom. He called it a “great surprise, and a little embarrassment.”
“It’s been a pretty good ride,” Hayes said with humor.
Hayes thanked all the people in the building where justice is churned out, who looked to him to make tough decisions. Many in the room had lost cases in Hayes’ courtroom. They all clapped anyway.
Both 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett and county public defender Harry Dest clapped louder than anyone, feet from where they have fought cases before Hayes.
Both men talked, before the hearing, about how Hayes has spent his life serving the people of South Carolina.
The words used by Brackett and Dest: “Integrity.”
Hayes was a South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate member before being elected judge. Before that, he served in the military.
In 2015, Hayes offered to be the judge who vacated convictions of the Friendship Nine civil rights protesters, who were jailed in Rock Hill in 1961 when fighting segregation.
Hayes, a nephew of the Rock Hill judge who sentenced the protesters, told The Herald that was one of the greatest days of his court life. On that day, Hayes told the courtroom and a national television audience: “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”
But most court days are workmanlike.
“I learned from all of you,” Hayes said. ‘Those of you who worked before me, appeared before me, it has just been one of the joys of my life.”
In South Carolina, circuit judges have statewide jurisdiction. Hayes, resident 16th Circuit Judge for York and Union counties, will still be a judge as of Jan. 1 with an active/retired status.
Retired judges often are assigned civil cases that require months or years to complete; Hayes is no exception. Hayes has been assigned many civil cases in the SCANA lawsuits, stemming from the abrupt closing of a nuclear reactor project near Columbia.
“I have plenty still to do,” Hayes told the crowd. “You will see me. I will keep a key to the house.”
Before he left, Hayes thanked everyone for giving him a sendoff that he did not expect.
The people in the audience rose one and clapped again.