Former OCC chief Hawke recalls his preemption rule and ‘brilliant’ legal career
When John D. Hawke took over as head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency at age 65, some members of the agency thought it would be a relatively short stint to crown a distinguished legal and government career.
But Hawke, who died on Monday at the age of 88, would serve as supervisor for six years during a tumultuous time in which the legal parameters of the national banking charter were a source of intense debate.
He joined the OCC in 1998, having already established himself as an experienced public servant and one of the most eminent banking lawyers of his time. Prior to becoming a comptroller, Hawke had worked at Capitol Hill, the Federal Reserve, and higher levels of the Treasury Department, among others.
“We thought this might be some kind of last hurray,” said Rafael DeLeon, who worked 32 years as an OCC examiner and senior manager, during Hawke’s time at the OCC.
But Hawke, who was known in Washington as “Jerry,” worked to end rental agreements between national banks and payday lenders. He also sparked a major controversy at the end of his term, enacting a controversial pre-emption rule that protected domestic banks from the oversight of state-level banking authorities.
The rule has placed Hawke, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton, the target of fierce criticism from Democratic lawmakers as well as consumer advocates. They said the regulation undermined anti-predation laws passed by states. But Hawke remained steadfast in his belief that the National Bank Act exempted national banks from state supervision.
“I cannot compromise a constitutional principle,” Hawke told an American Banker reporter in 2004. “I did not invent the doctrine of preemption.”
In the history of the OCC, only three other controllers have run the agency longer than Hawke, who served under both Clinton and President George W. Bush. In contrast, over the past six years, six different supervisors have headed the national banking regulator, most of them on an interim basis.
Hawke “just took the plunge,” said DeLeon, who is currently the director of MainStreet Bancshares, based in Fairfax, Va. âHe understood the agency and you could see his love for the bank. â¦ He was one of the most impressive controllers I have ever seen.
DeLeon said he was sometimes tasked with briefing Hawke and recalled that it was easy to “bring him up to date”.
âThere was no learning curve,â DeLeon said. âHe knew Washington and he knew politics inside and out. Other supervisors may have had equally sharp legal minds, DeLeon added, “but they didn’t know Washington, or they didn’t know the banking industry. â¦ see how [Hawke] problems solved was fun to watch.
Hawke received his undergraduate degree from Yale and his law degree from Columbia. He started his career as legal adviser to the House of Representatives’ select subcommittee on education. Hawke quickly moved to the private sector and to the powerful Washington law firm Arnold & Porter in 1962. He established the firm’s financial institutions practice and served as its president from 1987 to 1995.
With the exception of positions as General Counsel at the Fed from 1975 to 1978, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Home Finances from 1995 to 1998, and as Comptroller, Hawke practiced law at Arnold & Porter for nearly 60 years old.
Melanie Fein, a colleague of Arnold & Porter, described Hawke as “the most brilliant banking lawyer of his time”.
âHe was an incredible lawyer,â Fein said. âHe had a very insightful way of writing. He taught me and several others at Arnold & Porter. He built a great team and was just such a great teacher.
One of Hawke’s notable accomplishments in private practice has been his representation on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System against Dimensional Financial Corp. in 1985. In that case, he helped convince the US Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision, that nonbank financial service providers were not subject to Fed regulation.
H. Rodgin Cohen, senior chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City, said on Thursday that Hawke was “certainly the greatest banking lawyer of his time.”
One of Hawke’s great strengths, Cohen added, was his ability to smoothly transition from private practice to public service.
âI don’t think people considered him a Democrat or a Republican. They saw him as a dedicated public servant doing the right thing, âCohen said. âHe was able to earn the respect of everyone he dealt with, including through politics. “
Cohen recalled an episode where he saw a Fed chairman, whom he did not name, interview a candidate for general counsel after Hawke left the central bank.
âThe President said, ‘I always thought the good example was Jerry Hawke. If you could be my Jerry Hawke, that’s what I would expect from you, âCohen said.
Hawke was born on June 26, 1933 in New York City. After graduating from Yale, he served in the Air Force, entering Columbia Law School after completing his military service.
As a law student, Hawke was editor of the Columbia Law Review. He also worked for Justice E. Barrett Prettyman at the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Hawke’s marriage to Josephine Marie Reddan lasted from 1962 until her death in 1991. The family plan to hold a private funeral on Martha’s Vineyard which will be followed by a memorial service later this year.