Harold Putnam Williams

Associate Justice memorial

351 Mass.814 (1966)

The Honorable Harold Putnam Williams, an Associate Justice of this court from August 13, 1947, until his retirement on October 31, 1962, died on August 6, 1963. On November 15, 1966, a special sitting of the court was held at Boston, at which there were the following proceedings:

First Assistant Attorney General Edward T. Martin, for the Attorney General, addressed the court as follows:

May it please your Honors: In the absence from the Commonwealth of Attorney General Edward W. Brooke, it is my honor and privilege as First Assistant Attorney General to present on behalf of the Bar of the Commonwealth a memorial of the services of the late Harold Putnam Williams, Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Harold Putnam Williams was born in Foxboro, Massachusetts, on October 2, 1882. He was the son of Fred H. and Julia Annette (Blake) Williams. His father was a lawyer and served in the General Court.

Justice Williams was educated in the public schools of Foxboro and of Brookline, to which town his family moved during his school days. He was graduated from the Brookline High School as one of the leaders of his class in 1899. He was graduated from Harvard College with honors in 1903, with a degree of Bachelor of Arts, and received the degree of Bachelor of Laws from the Harvard Law School in 1906. Among his classmates at Harvard Law School were Felix Frankfurter, who later became a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Edward A. Counihan, Jr., who later became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

After his admission to the Bar, he practiced law, first with Walter I. Badger, in Boston, and then in association with his father.

Justice Williams was married on September 9, 1911, to Mary Harriet Culp of Brooklyn, Connecticut, who survived him, as did their son, Harold P. Williams, Jr.

In 1918, at the age of 36, he was appointed as Assistant District Attorney for the Southeastern District, covering Norfolk and Plymouth Counties, by District Attorney Frederick G. Katzmann, in which post he served for four years. He was elected District Attorney for the District in 1922 and served as District Attorney until his appointment in December, 1924, by President Coolidge, as United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

While serving as United States Attorney, he was appointed by Governor Alvan T. Fuller as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court and, after resigning as United States Attorney, was sworn in on November 12, 1926, three days more than forty years ago today.

Justice Williams served on the Superior Court until August 13, 1947 -- more than twenty years -- when he was appointed by Governor Robert F. Bradford to this court. He was then 64 years of age.

Justice Williams served as a justice of this court until his retirement on October 31, 1962, a period of more than fifteen years.

He died on August 6, 1965, at the age of 82. During the last few years of his life, he lived in Millis.

As Assistant District Attorney, Justice Williams assisted District Attorney Katzmann in the trial of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and, as District Attorney, handled later proceedings in the case.

When Justice Williams was appointed to the office of United States Attorney, it was stated that his selection satisfied both wets and drys. The drys were satisfied that he would vigorously enforce the prohibition laws and the wets desired his confirmation because he was not on the list of Anti-Saloon League Eligibles.

One of the many favorable comments upon his appointment as United States Attorney was: "There are two characteristics that mark Harold P. Williams above all others. One of them is his unusual consideration for everyone with whom he comes in contact. And the other is the confidence he inspires in the people he meets."

When Justice Williams was nominated as a justice of the Superior Court, it was stated in the press: "He is the timber of which judges are or ought to be made, his modesty is as unusual in one of his position as it is refreshing."

Justice Williams was appointed to the vacancy on this court resulting from the appointment of Justice Qua to the Chief Justiceship. The press of the day reported that Bench and Bar agreed that Governor Bradford had made an ideal choice.

When Justice Williams retired some four years ago, it was stated that he "Had earned a reputation for brilliance and fairness in the thirty-six years he has served as a judge. He is one of the most modest and most serious members of the Massachusetts Judiciary."

When appointed to the Superior Court, he had practiced law for some twenty years, had served as a county prosecuting officer for five years, and had served in the United States Attorney's office, which exercised both Federal criminal and civil jurisdiction, for about two years.

This broad experience qualified him exceptionally to serve on the Superior Court, our great trial court, and he brought to the Supreme Judicial Court not only the benefits of his practice as a trial lawyer, but the benefits of his more than twenty years of service on the Superior Court.

The entire Bar can attest to the kindliness, interest, and patient attention with which Justice Williams heard cases before him and the fairness of his decisions. The opinions he wrote while on this Bench reflect his learning and the care he gave to the cases assigned to him.

Justice Williams served in many offices in the Town of Brookline including those of Moderator and member of the Board of Trustees of the Public Library. He was a Congregationalist, a Mason, a member of the American Law Institute, the Massachusetts and Norfolk County Bar Associations, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the Harvard Club, the Union Club, and the Grange. He took a keen interest in golf as a member of the Brae Burn Country Club and he traveled extensively.

Justice Williams loved the law; he loved justice. He gladly, and happily, served the people of this Commonwealth with unstinted devotion, intelligence and learning. The people of the Commonwealth are proud to accord him the honor he so justly earned by his years of unselfish service in their interests. On behalf of the Bar of the Commonwealth, I respectfully move that this memorial be spread upon the records of the court.

Bennett Sanderson, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please the court: We are gathered here today to do honor to Harold Putnam Williams. He was a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court from 1947 until he resigned in 1962. Our object is not so much to mourn our loss because he is no longer physically present with us as to preserve his memory by expressing our happiness that we knew him and were able to profit by his wisdom and ability and to enjoy companionship with him.

My own active contact with Harold Williams goes back to 1925 when he was appointed United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and I became one of his assistants. He came to this position from six years in the District Attorney's office for the Southeastern District in Norfolk and Plymouth Counties, where he had already acquired a broad knowledge of the administration of a District Attorney's office and the preparation and trial of criminal cases, first as assistant and then as the District Attorney. While an assistant he worked with Fred Katzmann in the preparation and trial of the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

He also had an office in Boston with his father for the general practice of the law. He kept this connection with his Boston office until he went on the Bench.

The situation which faced Harold Williams in the United States Attorney's office would have discouraged a less determined man. The work load had been recently increased by new legislation and the docket was heavy with cases demanding trial. The quarters for the United States Attorney's office were in the old Post Office building. They were not designed for a law office and afforded practically none of the protection from prying eyes and ears which a prosecuting attorney might expect to have. Many of the assistants were new and inexperienced. But he tackled the work in his usual quiet, methodical, unexcited and careful manner and before long he was able to organize his team of relatively inexperienced assistants in such a way that they were making an impression on the endless volume of cases.

Those were the days of National Prohibition. There was a small army of agents and customs officers who daily brought in more complaints about the violation of this law for trial before the United States Commissioner, or in the courts or for presentation to the grand jury. Many of these cases were routine in nature and as to those, the administrative direction and guidance supplied by Harold Williams made possible a lawyer-like trial or other disposition. But there were other cases arising under this law which required legal and political courage and acumen to a high degree. At one time a special investigation turned up facts indicating violations of the law by high officials and police officers of one of our cities. There was nothing routine about the decision to go forward with this case and the determination of the way in which it was to be investigated and presented.

Or in a case otherwise routine there were frequent difficult questions under the somewhat restricted Federal laws of search and seizure.

I do not want to give the impression that the bulk of experience to be gained in the United States Attorney's office related to the Prohibition law, although the volume of that work was large. As United States Attorney, Judge Williams had to consider, prepare and prosecute such varied criminal offenses as thefts from the mail, both inside the postal system and out, thefts from national bank or government property, narcotics violations, smuggling, bankruptcy frauds, crimes committed on the high seas, counterfeiting and tax frauds. He was also expected to prepare, and try if necessary, any civil cases in this district in which the United States was interested, such as enforcement of contracts or collection of damages under them, tort cases for damages caused by or done to vehicles owned by the United States or even admiralty cases when vessels of the United States were involved in accidents.

Much of the civil work was subject to direction or suggestions by remote control from Washington and sometimes these directions and suggestions did not seem designed to facilitate the trial or disposition of the case. It was fortunate that Harold Williams had an even temperament and a quiet, practical approach to problems such as these.

He was a good man to work with and under. He was never given to outbursts or unconsidered action. His approach to problems was practical. He seemed always to be searching for the essential facts and then for the just and proper rules to apply to these facts to accomplish justice. He was usually brief in his communications, not given to the use of unnecessary words.

He never gave anyone a "brush-off " or gave the impression that he was impatient with the point of view of others. He would listen courteously, but his own opinion when he reached it was firm. Always he seemed able to give thoughtful attention to whatever had to be decided and was patient with and considerate of those with whom he was dealing.

He was an avid reader. Books were his constant companions. For a time he was a trustee of the Brookline Public Library. For a time he was very much interested in stamp collecting and acquired a good many valuable items. He spent a good deal of energy chopping wood for exercise and recreation. He served as chairman of the Appellate Draft Board during World War II.

He enjoyed travel and frequently took his recreation in this way, but his outstanding characteristic was an interest in people and pleasure in his contacts with them.

He was always a pleasant companion when the pressure of business let up enough to enjoy companionship. Some measure of the large number of friends he had and the high regard in which they held him was shown at the testimonial dinner held for him soon after his retirement from the Bench. It is a pleasure to be able to add a little to the preservation of the memory of an able judge and good friend.

I join in the motion made by the Attorney General.

Edward B. Hanify, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please the court: When the late Justice Harold Putnam Williams was appointed an Associate Justice of this court in 1947, he had served for twenty-one years on the Bench of the Superior Court. The career of a trial judge, by its very nature, has slender permanent official record in this Commonwealth and its enduring memorial is embodied in the recollections of the Bar and the traditions of the Superior Court. It is, therefore, appropriate that this permanent tribute to Mr. Justice Williams should contain some brief description of his qualities as a trial judge which elicited the respect and affection of the Bar.

I can recall three decades ago his hearing an argument on a demurrer in Middlesex Superior Court. A young lawyer, fresh from law school, labored with immature emphasis the doctrine of multifariousness with copious citation of authority. His adversary, enfeebled by advanced years, and with hearing impaired, struggled to set forth the basic equities almost smothered in the prolix bill. Mr. Justice Williams heard them both with unflagging patience; no faint flicker of irritation was displayed to discourage youth or dishearten age. The incident was characteristic of his judicial demeanor. On the Bench, in chambers, in courthouse corridor, on the street, he manifested this all-pervasive, gentle courtesy, to his colleagues, to clerks, to court officers, to lawyers, to jurors, to litigants. It was the external sign of inner strength, a quality of the natural gentleman, and the scholarly, impartial judge. Whether he presided at a routine civil session or carried the heavy burden of the much publicized major civil or criminal case, his judicial manner, with its calm composure, competence and courtesy, never changed.

With his innate reserve and modesty, it is not surprising that few flashes of self-revelation appear even in the Twenty-fifth and Fiftieth Anniversary Reports of his Harvard Class of 1903. Here he briefly outlines the chronology of his career. His election as District Attorney satisfied a deep ambition for public service. "I had always wished that sometime I might be District Attorney and it was a great personal satisfaction for me to obtain the election", he recorded in his Twenty-fifth Anniversary Report. It was then too early to determine, he wrote, whether his recent appointment to the Superior Court would be "as enjoyable as the more active practice at the Bar." Twenty-five years later, in his Fiftieth Anniversary Report, while a member of this court, he made this characteristic comment:

   "The self-examination which the Secretary suggests leaves me unaware of any particular 'impact' which the world events of fifty years have had on my 'inner life.' A professional life can rarely be planned in advance, and my work in the main has consisted in dealing from day to day with the ordinary problems which litigation presents."

"Dealing from day to day with the ordinary problems which litigation presents" -- how that self-effacing statement distills the essence of his distinguished career at the Bar and on the Bench! The ordinary problems of litigation with which he dealt so well, deeply touched human life and human relationships. They evoked his knowledge of human nature, matured through wide experience with men and affairs. They elicited his scholarly research and lucid exposition of legal doctrine. They frequently invoked his judicial discretion, that function of the enlightened judicial conscience. These problems followed no predictable pattern, emerged in endless variety from the turmoil of life, and found him seeking with patience and diligence for their just resolution. In short, the ordinary problems of litigation to which he referred were the warp and woof of the fabric of justice. In dealing with them he simply did his duty. Its performance was the wellspring of his inner life. Small wonder that fifty years of tumult in the world outside had no impact on an inner life thus motivated. His life and professional career followed and exemplified the precept:

"Hold fast to Truth, its central core. Clasp well that core's central sense! An atom there will gain thee more Than realms on Truth's circumference."

Chief Justice Wilkins responded as follows:

Mr. Attorney General and Brethren of the Bar:

Harold Putnam Williams for more than fifty years enjoyed prominence at the trial Bar and on the Bench. As public careers go, his was unusually long. At a highly critical period it was that he served six years in the office of the District Attorney for the Southeastern District, four years as an Assistant District Attorney and two years as District Attorney. The district embraced at that time his native Norfolk County and Plymouth County as well. He was next for two years United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. After this followed thirty-six years on the Bench, twenty-one as a justice of the Superior Court and fifteen as a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Judge Williams was ever a source of calm, conservative advice. Always unruffled, whatever the occasion, he also provided comfort and encouragement by example, particularly to associates in litigation or to colleagues in the judiciary. He was helpful to the young members of the Bar or to a new trial lawyer. He was particularly equipped by experience and personality to aid new members of a District Attorney's office who were untried criminal prosecutors. As a justice of the Superior Court, he developed the practice of delivering his charges to the jury without referring to notes. This not only held the closest attention of the jurors but greatly impressed lawyers and spectators alike. As a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, his opinions tended to terseness and compactness without undue interspersion of footnotes. Whatever was worth saying he believed should be in the text of the opinion.

During his service on the full court he wrote 514 opinions, of which 58 were rescripts. His first written opinion was Caron v. Hazlett, 321 Mass. 671, and his last was Hill v. Associated Transport, Inc. 345 Mass. 55. Among his better known opinions are Donahue v. Kenney, 327 Mass. 409, Needham v. Winslow Nurseries, Inc. 330 Mass. 95, Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Quincy, 331 Mass. 219, Commonwealth v. Ronomi, 335 Mass. 327, Massachusetts Society of Optometrists v. Waddick, 340 Mass. 581, Keyes v. Construction Service, Inc. 340 Mass. 633, and Salem v. Attorney General, 344 Mass. 626.

Judge Williams's philosophy upheld strength on the side of law enforcement, but strength governed by fairness. He had no patience with the modern, mediocre novelist who panders to pornography by arrogating to a pretence of high literary aspiration. In court opinions in this field he believed in a policy of clean life and clean thought.

Off the Bench Harold Williams knew how to relax and was a most congenial companion with those who were fortunate to enjoy his companionship.

The motion that the memorial be spread upon the records of the court is granted.

The court will now adjourn.

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