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FRANKLIN MARSHALL SLAYTON • 1932-2013
SoVaNow.com / October 31, 2013Frank M. Slayton, the longtime delegate and judge who died Tuesday at age 81 after a lengthy illness, served in politics in an era when “the legislative process wasn’t as vitriolic as it is now,” recalled his old friend and ally, former House of Delegates Majority Leader Richard Cranwell, in a telephone interview this week.
“There was a willingness to reach across the aisle and build consensus. Frank was as good at that as anybody.”
Cranwell, reached at the Roanoke-area law firm that bears his name, remembers the fun-loving side of Slayton, memorialized in keepsake photos snapped on the General Assembly floor by a newspaper photographer. In one set of photos, Cranwell, Slayton and fellow Democratic legislator Bob Ball could be seen sitting together, apparently conferring on legislation. In the next, they would be out of their chairs, clutching each others’ throats.
Today the gag shots hang in Cranwell’s home, a reminder of a gentler past, part of what Cranwell wryly calls his “rogues gallery” from a career in politics.
“Frank and I went into the legislature together,” Cranwell recalled. “We were part of a group we called ‘the Young Turkeys’ instead of the Young Turks.
“I was 29 years old. We were young and full of hope …. Some of the best friendships I ever had were from my years in the General Assembly, and Frank was one of the closest and dearest friends that I had.
“He was a gifted legislator, and a dear, dear friend.”
Slayton, who died peacefully early Tuesday afternoon surrounded by family, served in the House of Delegates from 1972 until 1987. A South Boston lawyer who found a calling in the political arena, he would gain renown as a senior legislator with seats on the influential House Appropriations and Courts of Justice committees. In a hard-fought 1986 election, he was ousted by a young Republican upstart, Mark Hagood of Clover, who served one term before losing the seat to Slayton’s law partner, W.W. “Ted” Bennett of Halifax.
After the defeat, Slayton took up other political causes, notably his opposition to a 1991 redistricting plan that carved up the State Senate District held by venerable Halifax lawyer-legislator Howard Anderson. After unsuccessfully suing to overturn the redrawn 18th Senate district, which folded rural Southside in with more populous Portsmouth, Slayton in 1995 launched a quixotic run against the one-term incumbent representing the minority-majority district, State Sen. Louise Lucas. He lost, 58-42%.
“I can remember watching the returns as they came in from Halifax and Mecklenburg and Brunswick, and he did extremely well,” recalled Slayton’s niece, present-day Circuit Judge Kim Slayton White, “and then the Tidewater returns hit.”
Slayton’s last hurrah in electoral politics cleared the path for his second career as a judge. In 1997, he was named to fill a vacancy on the local Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court bench, holding that position until his retirement in 2003. Whereas once Slayton had made his mark as a policy maker with a special focus on juvenile justice issues, as a judge he could put the stamp he made on the law into practice. It was a role for which he was ideally suited, said Bennett.
Losing his House seat “hit him pretty hard, because one, he wanted to continue to serve, and two, that rejection, he took it like anyone else would take it,” said Bennett. “But when he was called to serve on the bench …. it turned out he was superior at it, and everybody benefited from his position as a juvenile judge.
“He was expert at it, and that was his calling. He remarked a number of times that if he had known how much he enjoyed it, he would have sought it years before,” said Bennett.
The notion, however, draws a mild rebuke from Cranwell, the fellow pol and former floor leader in the House.
“That would have been a real loss to what I call the downtrodden and less fortunate, because [Frank] was certainly a champion for them in the legislature,” he said.
As a young man, Slayton returned to South Boston to practice law after earning his undergraduate and law degrees from University of Virginia. At U.Va., he made some of his first political connections, forging a longstanding friendship with late U.S. Senator and liberal champion Edward “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts. The two were members of the same 1959 law school class.
“As a child I can remember visiting Frank and [wife] Ruth Jean and my cousins and them having a Labrador retriever that had been a gift from Ted Kennedy,” said Kim White, like her uncle a lawyer who proceeded to a career in politics and the judiciary. “As I recall, the fact that Sen. Kennedy had contributed to Frank’s campaign one year was a big issue for [an] opposing campaign.”
Slayton’s destiny was to return home, interrupted only by a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, where he received a commission of second lieutenant. After leaving active duty, he launched a parallel legal career as a judge advocate general for the Virginia National Guard, a role he maintained for 20 years. Later in life, said Bennett, his involvement with the National Guard put him in the position to lobby for one of his closest friends, late South Boston Mayor Carroll Thackston, to receive the appointment of adjutant general of the Virginia National Guard. Slayton himself ascended to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Guard.
After getting out of the Army, Slayton joined the South Boston law practice of James S. Easley and Robert T. Vaughan, which evolved over time to include Bennett and now-retired juvenile Judge Michael Rand of South Boston. It was the local version of a power law firm: Vaughan later became a long-serving judge, and Slayton and Bennett each served in the General Assembly. Kim Slayton White interned with the firm as a law school student.
In private practice, Slayton won his most notable victory representing Riverdale landowners and the Halifax Cotton Mill in a lawsuit against the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The central claim in the case, said Bennett, was that the Corps had inflicted unnecessary damage on businesses by misjudging the impact of its flood control practices in the region. The claim centered around the number of trees that the Corps had planted in the flood zone: “millions of trees,” said Bennett, that acted as “mini dams” whenever the Dan River swelled to flood stage.
“The water would slow down looking for a place to go,” he said, “and it was going to Riverdale.”
The lawsuit propelled the firm into alien territory: “We knew — we believed — that the Corps was fundamentally at fault and [our clients] should be compensated for the harm they suffered economically,” said Bennett. “The funny thing is, when we took the case we didn’t know there was a court of claims in Washington where we had to bring the case.
“They [the Corps] had the proverbial deep pockets for the defense — that is, the United States treasury. They didn’t have any respect for us initially. But they subsequently did.”
Bennett noted his grasp of the lawsuit’s details have faded over time. But not his memory of the settlement amount: $5 million.
“I can remember that one,” he laughed.
The Corps paid up to settle the case, with the agreement placed under seal, so as not to establish a precedent that might later haunt the government. The payout was more than Riverdale businesses were collectively worth. And it was Slayton, opined his old law firm partner, who figured out how the case could be won, and what it was worth..
“Frank was just the kind of guy to tackle that kind of lawsuit,” said Bennett. “These people were clearly victims, and Frank was for the little guy — the kid, the juvenile, the person who’s been clearly wronged. The system needed to be there to make sure they got a fair result.”
At the time her uncle was litigating the case, White was a young law school student. She acknowledges that the Corps lawsuit “is the one so many people remember,” but to her it is emblematic of the way of Slayton handled all his legal dealings.
“His victory in that case was such an example of the way he approached all of his cases. He always found an interesting and unusual issue that he was able to research to the nth degree and come up victorious,” she said. “He was the perfect small-town lawyer who helped everyone who came through the door. I don’t think it mattered to him whether it was a multi-million dollar case or a small collections matter, he handled everything with the same determination.”
Few of Slayton’s contemporaries in the legislature are still around today, although an exception is Lacey Putney of Bedford, the longest-serving member in General Assembly history who will retire at the end of this year at the age of 85. Putney on Wednesday called Slayton “a typical Virginia gentleman” who “had a very keen mind and was a sharp lawyer.
“He was respected by all on both sides of the aisle and was sorely missed when he left the legislature,” said Putney, an independent who caucuses with the Republican majority in the House.
White pointed to the tremendous influence her uncle wielded within the family, as the patriarchal figure who set the example for all to follow. While her professional career may most closely resemble her uncle’s, White said, “He instilled in his family a sense of dedication and a sense of public service. I think each of us [in the next generation] has taken that and applied it in our lives in a different way.
“My cousins have been dedicated to so many community organizations and churches. That’s all a testament to what Frank taught,” she said.
To Bennett, a remarkable part of Slayton’s life was the way he balanced the demands of law, politics and a family that “is extraordinarily faithful to each other.
“He just kept a balance. He was asked to do a lot. But he kept a pretty good balance between that calling and the needs of his family.”
One part “political animal,” one part community stalwart, Bennett said he will remember his colleague above all as a caring individual.
“He was a true friend when I was partner with him and mentor to me in politics, and a dear friend up to the day he died.”
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