Elbert Hatchett, lawyer and civil rights activist from Pontiac, dies

Elbert Hatchett, a violent lawyer, civil rights activist, and mainstay of Pontiac, died Wednesday, a family member confirmed.

According to a report in the Detroit News, Hatchett was 84 years old. His cousin William Hatchett said the family did not disclose the cause of death. The family are planning a private funeral and public memorial to commemorate Elbert Hatchett’s life next week.

Elbert Hatchett was known for a large number of cases, ranging from product liability to high-profile criminal cases.

Local broadcast and media agency owner Charlene Mitchell-Rodgers had been a friend and client of Hatchett since 1999. She said when the attorney walked into the courtroom it was like a scene from a movie.

“If he stood you up on something, you knew you were getting the best,” said Mitchell-Rodgers. “When he walked into a courtroom, the other lawyers were in awe. He treated judges with the respect they want because judges don’t always understand that.”

Elbert Hatchett spoke to his Pontiac law firm in 2004 about the Pontiac School District lawsuit.  Hatchett won the lawsuit that forced the county into integration.  The case resulted in death threats, gunfire through his office window and forcing him to hire full-time bodyguards for himself and his family.

Mitchell-Rodgers said Hatchett was a philanthropist and that his personality shone through his signature style.

“He paid his respects when he walked into a room. When you saw Elbert Hatchett, he always looked like he’d walked out the window of Neiman Marcus,” said Mitchell-Rodgers. “He was always impeccably dressed. He had all of his clothes made. You never saw anyone who looked like him or who was dressed like him.”

In 1988, lawyer Elbert Hatchett modeled a coat from the men's fur salon in Bricker-Tunis Furriers in West Bloomfield.

Since opening his Pontiac-based law firm in 1968, Hatchett has been an influential figure on Michigan’s legal community. The Pontiac native made it a goal to keep his “home base” office in town, Mitchell-Rodgers said.

“They put the flags up on half-staff in Pontiac City (Friday) and I thought that was really appropriate. How often does someone who is not an elected officer get this?” 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 Friday that Hatchett was a longtime friend of her husband, William Waterman, who was both the judge and Hatchett’s legal partner.

“Your lifelong alliance and deep friendship with Judge Christopher Brown has been a force that has led to victory in civil rights cases over the years. They worked together to win a landmark case that overturned the Pontiac public school system that was ruled by the late judge became Damon Keith, “wrote Waterman. “Attorney Hatchett was a fighter for justice and a believer in the law.”

Antonio McKelton and his attorney Elbert Hatchett appeared before Judge Gus Cifelli in the 48th District Court in 1997.  Hatchett commented on the number of cops posted in the courtroom (at one point there were 10).

When Hatchett was president of the Oakland County’s NAACP Chapter in 1969, he had brought a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the Pontiac schools were deliberately separated. Statistics showed that the Pontiac schools were either 90% white or 90% black, according to a report from Wayne State University.

Judge Damon Keith ruled that the Pontiac School District developed guidelines to uphold racial discrimination and segregation. He ordered Pontiac “to integrate its school system at all levels, student body, faculty and administrators before the beginning of the September 1970 school year”.

Hatchett worked on a wide variety of legal cases. He was a settlement negotiator when the Detroit Lions battled to break their 30-year Pontiac Silverdome lease, according to Free Press articles in 2001.

William Hatchett said more than 100 lawyers have practiced in Hatchett’s law firm. When his cousin trained aspiring lawyers, it affected every single one of them, he said.

“The wisdom and insight that (the lawyers) have gained about what this profession really means has had the opportunity to experience it,” said William Hatchett of his cousin’s teaching methods.

Desmon Venn (left), 26, of West Bloomfield, appears with attorney Elbert Hatchett on his 2003 manslaughter charge in Magistrate Peter Mansour's 48th District Court. Venn hit West Bloomfield High School classmate Zuhair (Steve ) Pattah, a 1994, sent him into a 9 year coma and eventual death.  Pattah was 25 when he died in January 2003.

The late Hatchett had a strong character, his cousin said. He took on serious cases, such as representing Desmon Venn in the early 2000s. In 1994, Venn hit West Bloomfield High School classmate Zuhair (Steve) Pattah, who Pattah was in a coma for nine years before he eventually died. Venn pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 2½ to 30 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

Attorney Elbert Hatchett speaks to the media following the 2003 indictment against Desmon Venn.

Hatchett had an interesting life. According to the Oakland Press, he was serving a three-year prison sentence after being convicted of four federal offenses in 1989 for failing to pay federal and state income taxes.

In 2014, a judge filed an injunction against the Hatchett law firm that prevented the firm from paying employees’ wages without paying associated wage taxes. During the case, Hatchett said the verdict and standing order against the law firm related to a “historic problem” that has been resolved.

William Hatchett said it was important to recognize your cousin’s work, life and heritage.

“He assumed many unpopular causes and suffered the slings and arrows of sometimes racism and oppression and things that many people would never or could not endure,” said William Hatchett. “He endured everything and came back stronger.”

Contact Slone Terranella: [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @SloneTerranella.

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