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‘Firm but fair’: End of 26 years as York County judge for John Hayes

Retiring York County judge: 'I have learned a lot about human nature'

16th Circuit Judge John Hayes will retire on Dec. 31 after serving 26 years as a judge in York County. Hayes, a lawyer since 1971, took the bench in 1991 as resident judge for York and Union counties. Hayes said during his time as judge, he has "l
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16th Circuit Judge John Hayes will retire on Dec. 31 after serving 26 years as a judge in York County. Hayes, a lawyer since 1971, took the bench in 1991 as resident judge for York and Union counties. Hayes said during his time as judge, he has "l

John Hayes knows most everybody who goes through the justice system in York County knows his name. The lawyers and prosecutors and cops, and the defendants and their families know him, too.

Anyone in York County who had to appear in criminal court in the community with more than a quarter million residents know the 16th Circuit judge’s name: John Calvin Hayes III.

Every decision a judge makes is picked apart, but the sentencing of the guilty is fodder for everybody.

“Even when the media wasn’t there, the community knows the sentences,” Hayes said. “The community knows what someone received for their transgression.”

Hayes, who retires Dec. 31, said he never shied away from sentencing the guilty. He did it thousands of times in 26 years as judge. Hayes said sentencing is by far the hardest part of being a judge. There are victims, defendants, and many times nobody leaves happy. Nobody, himself included, likes to see people go to prison, Hayes said.

But sometimes a message has to be sent to the defendant and the community about behavior that is not just illegal, but intolerable, Hayes said. Even more so for repeat offenders. Hayes has used the word “incorrigible” in court. It often is followed by the sound of prison cell bars being clanged shut.

“Where rehabilitation does not work after repeated offenses, sometimes the only option is to impose punishment,” Hayes said.

A few times over the years, at the grocery store or gas station, people approached Hayes and asked for a word.

“I have had people come up to me and introduce themselves, and tell me I did them a favor when I held them accountable,” Hayes said. “Those people went on to better lives.”

I have had people come up to me and introduce themselves, and tell me I did them a favor when I held them accountable. Those people went on to better lives.

16th Circuit Judge John Calvin Hayes III

Lasting reputation

South Carolina requires circuit court judges to retire at age 72. Hayes is 72. Hayes will still be a judge on retired/active status around the state assigned to some civil cases, including lawsuits from a failed nuclear plant near Columbia. But for York County’s courts, he’ll be gone from the bench in the new year.

But not forgotten. And not for his 1983 cameo as a state trooper in the CBS television miniseries “Chiefs.” The series about a fictional Georgia town and its lawmen, starring Paul Sorvino, Billy Dee Williams and Charlton Heston, was filmed mainly in Chester. Hayes was cast as a cop with one line: “Run ’em in.”

“The actors were fine people,” Hayes said. “I have a little ham in me. I showed it then.”

But it’s as a real life judge the military veteran has carved a lasting reputation.

Hayes, a lawyer since 1971, took the bench in 1991 as resident judge for York and Union counties in the 16th judicial circuit that gave him statewide jurisdiction. He had just finished serving in the S.C. General Assembly Senate and House of Representatives. York County’s criminal court docket was in a shambles with the worst backlog in the state. A young cop turned lawyer named Tommy Pope ran for 16th Circuit Solicitor in 1992 under a banner of cleaning up the mess as a prosecutor.

Pope won and did clean house, but not alone. Hayes was part of the solution to introduce a case management system that moved thousands of pending cases., Pope said. The people of York County are safer and the courts far more efficient because of Hayes, said Pope, now a state representative and private practice lawyer.

Hayes was “always open to innovative ideas and worked tirelessly to make sure those ideas worked for the benefit of the entire system,” Pope said.

Pope said everyone -- prosecutors, cops and defendants -- knew of Hayes’ “firm but fair” reputation.

Even Hayes knows his reputation for tough sentencing of the guilty spread through the jail faster than pizza at lunch.

“You get a reputation as either hard or more lenient, the community knows it,” Hayes said.

Retired York County Judge Lee Alford, who left the bench to active/retired status in 2014 at age 72 and served in the adjoining courtroom with Hayes for more than 15 years, said Hayes is “highly respected around the state” for his intelligence, wit and fairness.

Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor who has been a prosecutor for all of Hayes’ judicial tenure, said Hayes is all the public should expect from a judge: courteous, knowledgeable, wise, smart, firm and fair.

Brackett called Hayes 26 years as a judge a “tremendous public service.”

His wisdom, integrity and impeccable reputation for being a man of honor is a shining example for all South Carolinians to follow.

Harry Dest, 16th Circuit public defender

Harry Dest, 16th Circuit public defender for the same quarter century era, said Hayes service will be remembered.

“His wisdom, integrity and impeccable reputation for being a man of honor is a shining example for all South Carolinians to follow,” Dest said.

National spotlight

Hayes handled thousands of civil cases in 26 years. But civil court is about money, not crime and punishment. It was in criminal court where Hayes was at center stage, including national news.

Hayes was trial judge on television across America for the 1999 trial of James Robertson, convicted and sentenced to death for killing his parents.

He was trial judge in 2001 for convicted killer Bobby Lee Holmes, who raped and killed an elderly retired teacher in York in 1989. That conviction was overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the South Carolina law Hayes used prohibiting third party guilt testimony into the trial was illegal. Holmes later pleaded guilty and is serving life.

Hayes also was trial judge in the almost month-long 2004 trial of Billy Wayne Cope and James Sanders, who were both convicted of the rape and killing of Cope’s daughter in Rock Hill in 2001. Hayes not only sentenced both men to life in prison, he added 30 years to the sentences.

Near the end of his career, Hayes had one last headline. Hayes vacated the convictions of the black Friendship Nine civil rights protesters who were sent to jail for a month in 1961 for trespassing at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill. His uncle, the late Billy Hayes, was the judge who sentenced the protesters in 1961.

Hayes said in court in 2015 when the convictions were vacated in a story covered by national networks that the protesters were arrested and convicted because of their race, which was wrong.

Hayes said he is proud to have a role in righting that wrong of history, his hometown where he still lives.

“Rock Hill, York County, this community has been very good to me” Hayes said. “Rock Hill has been kind to me.”

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