If the adage “once a judge, always a judge” applies to anyone, it would be Joe M. Moorhead.
Moorhead, believed to be the oldest resident of Hancock County, died Saturday, a month before he would have turned 106. He was the senior jurist in a county known for judges who serve long terms and live lengthy lives.
Moorhead served common pleas court from 1953 to 1976. He was also county prosecutor and probate judge during a public service career that spanned 36 years. During that time he lost just one election, his first.
His longevity meant he lived half of Findlay’s history. For example, he was one of the few Findlay residents to observe the two worst Blanchard River floods, in 1913 and 2007. Moorhead’s family goes back to the 1830s, and his grandfather, J.M. Moorhead, was one of the commissioners when the county courthouse was built in the late 1880s.
In a 2008 interview, Moorhead recalled many changes in the legal system while he was judge, especially toward the end of his career.
When first elected to the bench, the county had just two common pleas court judges, one assigned to the probate court and the other handling criminal, civil and domestic cases. It wasn’t until 1977, after he retired, that a third common pleas court judge was added due to a rising caseload.
By the late 1960s, Moorhead’s docket had changed from being primarily civil cases to more heavily weighted with criminal and domestic matters. In the 1950s and 1960s, county grand juries met only three times a year and were filing only about 50 criminal cases annually. By 1970, they were meeting at least four times a year, and returning about 100 indictments.
By the time Moorhead left office in December 1976, the criminal cases were also taking more time to move through the courts and a referee was helping resolve domestic disputes.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the mid-1960s, meanwhile, had brought changes that required poor defendants to be assigned attorneys. Other changes required criminal suspects to be advised of certain constitutional rights, sometimes called Miranda warnings.
Moorhead entered law school at Ohio Northern University in 1934, but decided a year later to run for county representative, a position comparable today to state representative. Just 27 at the time, Moorhead lost that election to then-county Prosecutor Jackson E. Betts, who later served as a U.S. congressman for 20 years.
But Moorhead would never lose again.
In 1940, after finishing law school, he ran for county prosecutor and won. He was later elected probate judge, then common pleas court judge.
Prior to law school, Moorhead taught at Arlington School for several years in the early 1930s. His students included Carson Davis, who was elected sheriff in 1952, and Paul Beach, who went on to become a successful lawyer and probate judge here.
For about 10 years after his retirement. Moorhead presided over numerous cases while serving as a visiting judge.
He never really retired. Moorhead remained in Findlay and maintained his interest in the bar association and the attorneys who practice here. He was also active for more than 60 years in the Kiwanis, Elks, Masonic Temple and American Legion.
And, at 95, he had a hole in one.
Now, that’s a man for all ages.
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