Retired Judge Buth's praises sung at portrait unveiling ceremony



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The ceremony Monday to mark the unveiling of recently-retired Judge George Buth’s portrait may have been short, but it was packed with praise for Judge Buth and sweet memories of his tenure on the bench.

Current 17th Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald Johnston, after telling the crowd gathered on the twelfth floor of the courthouse that he already missed Judge Buth and his skills, said that not too many people know that he had first met Buth when they were both at Wayne State University School of Law.

It is one of the ironies of this state’s prohibition against running for judge after the age of 70 that Judge Buth, by all accounts at the top of his game, was unable to compete for the seat again, while Judge Johnston will be able to continue until he is over 73.

He added that he appreciates how easy former Chief Judge Buth made it look to manage relations with Kent County — though several present, Buth included, thanked the county administration for being remarkably good to work with.

Notably, Judge Johnston said that Judge Buth is the third-longest-serving judge in the history of Kent County judges, at over 30 years. The other two were long ago and served into very old age, before the age-70 provision was put into the Michigan Constitution.

Judge Buth, whose retirement took effect earlier this year, is a lifelong resident of the Grand Rapids area. He attended Michigan State University for a business administration degree, went on to Wayne State for his J.D., and practiced in Grand Rapids with a few small firms. Before his 1986 election, Buth was a sole practitioner focusing on criminal appeals.

According to a broad range of those who came into contact with him while he was on the bench, from judicial colleagues to people who appeared before him, Buth’s temperament was unfailingly judicial.

“He’s mild-mannered, even-tempered, calm and unruffled,” Judge Johnston commented.

Johnston also noted that an article years ago in the Detroit Free Press had reviewed the Court of Appeals records and reported that George Buth was the least reversed circuit court judge in the state. He quoted former colleague Judge Dennis Kolenda as saying humorously, “I was affirmed by the Court of Appeals but I think I was right anyway.”

Judge Christopher Yates, who represented the Grand Rapids Bar Association since all of the GRBA?staff was out of the state,  shared very personal memories of George Buth. Judge Yates said on occasion he would drive Judge Buth home, and “we would attempt to solve all the world’s problems in those 20-minute car rides.”

He also joked that he felt he had contributed greatly to Judge Buth’s well-being by telling him about a “crystal ball” website that predicts 24-7 what will happen with Michigan State University sports teams.

But more seriously, Judge Yates added that when Judge Buth was on the board of the Michigan Judges Association board Yates chaired, “He didn’t speak very much but when he said something it was just what needed to be said. It solved whatever problem we were having.

“The judge has extraordinary wisdom and experience, and one of the terrible effects of the 70-year-old age limit is having to lose people like him,” Judge Yates added.

Retired Judge Janet Haynes spoke briefly about the good times she shared with Judge Buth, including baby showers for his children and being schooled in what to expect from prison visits when they went to Marquette Prison together.

She closed by saying, “Thank you, George, it was a great pleasure serving with you. I hope that in retirement you have a permanent smile on your face just like in the portrait.”

After the unveiling of the expert photograph that will be used to commemorate Judge Buth’s time on the bench, he himself took the podium.

He remembered fondly that he and Judge Haynes had started working together at 200 North Division even before they were judicial colleagues, and he marveled at how quickly the time had passed.

“I remember standing here when I was sworn in, and now 30 years have passed, and I’m standing here again. Janet referred to the baby shower for my daughter Annalise— she was two at the time, and now her own son is turning six.”

He has four children, and at present three grandchildren. He especially thanked his wife Nancy (second from right in the family photo), to whom he has been married 48 years, and his staff, some of whom were present. “I couldn’t have made it one year without them,” he commented.

“I have fond memories of all my colleagues over the years, including  the judges who were here when I started who served as mentors. Judge Yared invited me to sit on the bench with him in between when I was elected and when I was sworn in, which was such a helpful experience,” Judge Buth said. “So I passed it on to Joe Rossi before my retirement.”

Judge Rossi was among the bank of judges who attended.

“I want to thank you all for being a part of my 30-year journey,” Judge Buth said before quoting author Eric Metaxas: “One way of understanding what love is and what it means to love is to say that to love something is to see it as we think God would see it... We do not fail to see the sins and failings, but we also see past them to the hope and the promise... We recognize that ‘the story’s not over.’ We see the hope on the other side of where we are.”