John Hanson Briscoe

John Hanson Briscoe (Baltimore Sun / January 5, 2014)

Judge John Hanson Briscoe Sr., scion of a prominent Southern Maryland family who served as speaker of the House of Delegates and later as a judge for the Circuit Court of St. Mary's County, died Wednesday of cancer at Half Pone Farm in Hollywood, St. Mary's County. He was 79.

"John was a really great legislator and did a great job as speaker. He was very effective," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes. "He was very honorable and smart, and I'm really glad that I can call him a good friend."

"I think the fact of the matter is that John Hanson Briscoe was a very decent human being and everyone respected and liked him," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who served as state Senate president from 1975 to 1979. "Even though he was laid-back and quiet, he had a very decisive vision for Southern Maryland and the state that went far beyond local parochial politics."

John Hanson Briscoe, the son of John H.T. Briscoe, a lawyer, former trial magistrate and state's attorney for St. Mary's County, and Hilda Maddox Wade Briscoe, a homemaker, was born and raised in Leonardtown.

He was named after John Hanson, a direct ancestor who was the last chief executive of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

After graduating from St. Mary's Academy in Leonardtown in 1952, Judge Briscoe entered Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1956. He earned a law degree in 1960 from the University of Baltimore and was admitted to the Maryland State Bar that year.

Judge Briscoe returned to practice law in St. Mary's County, which at the time was run by Judge Philip H. Dorsey's political machine.

Judge Dorsey "controlled all the jobs," Judge Briscoe recalled in an interview with Southern Maryland Newspapers Online. "The county was so dysfunctional. You never knew how much money we had."

J. Frank Raley Jr., an insurance executive, persuaded the young lawyer to join him on a Democratic reform ticket in the 1962 election. Judge Briscoe was elected to the House of Delegates and his running mate to the state Senate.

As a young moderate delegate, Judge Briscoe made his mark supporting much of the state's original civil rights legislation in the early 1960s, the new 1968 state constitution and the abortion bill in 1971.

Legislative colleagues and St. Mary's politicians described him as being "neither too liberal nor a red neck," said a 1973 Evening Sun profile.

Judge Briscoe served as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Environmental Matters Committee and the Ways and Means Committee before being elected speaker in 1973, succeeding Thomas Hunter Lowe. He remained speaker until 1979.

In a 1985 article in The Baltimore Sun, he explained that the speakership helped him work out compromises. "I like to think that I have a bit of a talent bringing people together," he said.

He was described in a 1975 Evening Sun profile as being "one of those rare legislators who has managed to scale the greasy pole to leadership without seriously ruffling the sensibilities or the vanities of his colleagues."

"He was a delight to work with. He was low-key and positive, and all of the other adjectives that I can think of to describe his position naturally apply to him," said Mr. Hoyer.

State Sen. Roy P. Dyson served with Judge Briscoe in the House of Delegates during the 1970s and was a friend of nearly 50 years.

"I felt that he was the last leader of the General Assembly that really understood rural people and rural issues. He looked after them, and that always impressed me," said Mr. Dyson, who has served in the state Senate since 1995.

He credits Judge Briscoe with leading the effort that saved St. Clement's Island in St. Mary's County, where the English settlers who colonized Maryland arrived on the Ark and the Dove in 1634.

"The island had once been 400 acres but was now down to 40 acres, and was in danger of disappearing. John Hanson led the effort that got it riprapped in the 1970s, and it is there because of that," said Mr. Dyson. "It was one of the most important things that he did."

During his years in the legislature, Judge Briscoe played a vital role in the expansion of Point Lookout State Park and the creation of Greenwell State Park and the College of Southern Maryland.