Elbert Hatchett, a fierce lawyer, civil rights activist and Pontiac mainstay, died Wednesday, a family member confirmed.
Hatchett was 84, according to a report from the Detroit News. His cousin, William Hatchett, said the family isn’t disclosing the cause of death. The family plans to have a private funeral and public memorial to commemorate Elbert Hatchett’s life next week.
Elbert Hatchett was known for a rich caseload that spanned from product liability to high-profile criminal cases.
Local broadcaster and media agency owner Charlene Mitchell-Rodgers was a friend and client of Hatchett since 1999. She said when the lawyer walked into the courtroom, it was like a scene from a movie.
“If he represented you on something, you knew you were getting the best,” Mitchell-Rodgers said. “When he walked into a courtroom, the other lawyers were in awe. He treated judges with the respect that they want because judges don’t always get that.”
Mitchell-Rodgers said Hatchett was a philanthropist and his personality shined through his signature style.
“He commanded respect when he walked into a room. When you saw Elbert Hatchett, first of all, he always looked like he walked out of the Neiman Marcus window display,” Mitchell-Rodgers said. “He was always impeccably dressed. He had all of his clothes made. You never saw anybody who looked like him or who was dressed like him.”
Since opening his Pontiac-based law firm in 1968, Hatchett had been an influential figure on Michigan’s legal scene. A Pontiac native, he made it a point to keep his “home base” office in the city, Mitchell-Rodgers said.
“They put the flags at half-staff in the city of Pontiac (Friday), and I thought that was really appropriate. How many times does someone who’s not an elected official get that?” Mitchell-Rodgers said. “Pontiac was his baby. He really did a lot for Pontiac. He never moved his offices out of Pontiac — that was his base, right there on Orchard Lake Road.”
Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman said in a Facebook post Fridaythat Hatchett was a longtime friend of her husband, William Waterman, who was a judge and Hatchett’s law partner.
“Their lifelong alliance and deep friendship along with Judge Christopher Brown was a force that led to victory for civil rights cases throughout the years. They worked together to win a landmark case that desegregated the Pontiac public school system, which was decided by the late Judge Damon Keith,” Waterman wrote. “Attorney Hatchett was a fighter for justice and a believer of the law.”
In 1969, when Hatchett was president of Oakland County’s NAACP chapter, he had filed a suit in federal court, claiming Pontiac schools were deliberately segregated. Statistics showed Pontiac schools were either 90% white or 90% Black, according to a report by Wayne State University.
Judge Damon Keith ruled the Pontiac school district created policies to perpetuate racial discrimination and segregation. He ordered Pontiac to “integrate its school system at all levels, student body, faculties and administrators, before the beginning of the school year of September, 1970.”
Hatchett worked on a wide variety of legal cases. He was a settlement negotiator when the Detroit Lions fought to break their 30-year Pontiac Silverdome lease, according to Free Press articles from 2001.
William Hatchett said more than 100 lawyers practiced at Hatchett’s firm. When his cousin trained burgeoning lawyers, he affected every single one of them, he said.
“The wisdom and insight that (the lawyers) gained about what this profession truly means, they had an opportunity to experience it,” William Hatchett said about his cousin’s teaching methods.
The late Hatchett had a strong character, his cousin said. He took on hard cases, like representing Desmon Venn in the early 2000s. In 1994, Venn punched West Bloomfield High School classmate Zuhair (Steve) Pattah, which left Pattah in a coma for nine years before his eventual death. Venn pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 2½ to 30 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
Hatchett had an interesting life. He served a three-year prison sentence after being convicted on four misdemeanor counts of failure to pay federal and state income taxes in 1989, according to the Oakland Press.
In 2014, a judge filed a permanent injunction against Hatchett’s law firm, preventing the firm from paying employees wages without paying associated payroll taxes. During the case, Hatchett said the judgment and permanent injunction against the law firm related to a “historical issue” that was resolved.
William Hatchett said it’s important to recognize his cousin’s work, life and legacy.
“He took on a lot of unpopular causes and suffered the slings and arrows of sometimes racism and oppression and things that a lot of people would never endure or couldn’t endure,” William Hatchett said. “He endured it all and came back stronger.”
Contact Slone Terranella: STerranella@freepress.com and follow her on Twitter @SloneTerranella.
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