Eugene N. Hamilton, the son of a domestic worker and a postal employee who rose to become chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court, died Nov. 19 at Montgomery General Hospital in Olney. He was 78.
He had a heart attack, said his secretary, Karen Stephenson.
In 1993, Judge Hamilton became the second African American to head the bench of the Superior Court, the district’s principal trial court for local matters.
During his seven years in the top job and his three decades on the bench, he established a reputation as a strong advocate for children and youths. His wife, Virginia Hamilton, said that together they hosted more than 50 foster children and adopted four. Some of the foster children were severely handicapped.
After stepping down as chief judge, he remained active as a senior judge. In that capacity, the last major case he heard involved a 10-year-old boy from Prince George’s County abandoned at a Children’s National Medical Center psychiatric ward. The child was ultimately moved to a long-term-care facility near Philadelphia.
“His commitment to the children of D.C. was evident in his final days,” current chief judge Lee F. Satterfield said in a statement.
Judge Hamilton’s appointment atop the bench put him in charge of a $76 million budget, 59 full-time judges and a court backlog of 60,000 cases.
During his time as chief, the court experienced a budget crisis. Judge Hamilton was criticized for allowing the court to fall millions of dollars into debt. In 1998, The Washington Post reported that the court was $4.9 million behind in payments to lawyers for indigent clients.
Critics attributed the shortfall to poor planning by court administrators. Judge Hamilton and others blamed it on the federal takeover of programs such as adult probation, which sapped funding from the rest of the court.
In response to a federal audit, Judge Hamilton restructured the court to give judges greater control over administrative matters. It was credited as a genuine effort to improve the court, but some judges complained that he was overstepping his authority and that they should not be burdened with budgetary matters.
In 2000, Judge Hamilton stepped down as chief judge a year before the end of his second term and after 30 years on the bench.
“I always set my mark for 30 years,” he said in an interview with The Post at the time.
Judge Hamilton attributed many of the court’s problems to lack of funds and Congress’s “lack of familiarity” with the court’s workings. He continued to hear cases as a senior judge until his death.
Eugene Nolan Hamilton was born Aug. 24, 1933, in Memphis. He was known as someone who remembered his modest origins. Judge Anita Josey-Herring of the Superior Court said he “never forgot the everyday people, and he mentored other professionals, lawyers and judges to live a life of service.”
He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1954 and a law degree in 1958, both from the University of Illinois. He served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Judge Advocate General’s Corps before moving to the Washington area in 1961.
He worked in the Justice Department’s civil division before receiving an appointment to the D.C. Superior Court in 1970. He worked in all divisions of the Superior Court before becoming chief judge.
During his tenure as chief judge, the Superior Court began a pilot program for juvenile nonviolent offenders, called Urban Services Corps. The program combined a boot camp-like training program with months of supervision and job training.
Judge Hamilton taught at the law schools of Harvard and American universities.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Virginia David Hamilton of Brookeville; nine children, Alexandra Evanzz of Ashton; Steven Hamilton of Santa Clara, Calif.; James Hamilton of Bowie; Eric Hamilton and David Hamilton, both of Tampa; Rachael Hamilton of Columbia; Jeremiah Hamilton of Silver Spring; Michael Hamilton of Brookeville; and Marcus Hamilton of Wheaton; 15 grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.