Garthe honored for quietly giving legal assistance to those in need

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

For Donald “Pete” Garthe, the 2012 Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM) Michael Barnes Award winner, the situation is rather simple.

“I’ve been fortunate to earn a livelihood in the law,” he explains, “and I feel I owe something back to the community, to help others who can’t afford lawyers.”

That straightforward philosophy has led Garthe to take 54 case referrals since the beginning of Legal Aid’s pro bono program in 1985 — he was one of the earliest participants — and to have given more than 550 hours of his time to helping low- or no-income people with divorce and other family law cases.

And Garthe brings added value to those cases: he is “fairly fluent,” by his own estimate, in Spanish.

He learned Spanish in the late 1960s when he worked in Colombia, South America, as part of service to the Peace Corps. That selfless work, which may have set in place the pattern of his later generosity, took place after his six years  at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Grand Rapids (from ninth grade through second-year college) and his final two years at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in
Baltimore, Maryland, from which he graduated.

Following the Peace Corps, Garthe received his Juris Doctor from Wayne State University Law School, graduating in 1975.

He has also been a referee at the Kent County Family Court, taught at the Michigan Judicial Institute, and served as a hearing officer for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Community service has included being an arbitrator for the Better Business Bureau and a commissioner on the Wyoming Planning Commission.

A brief stint managing the Grand Rapids office of the Muskegon-based Landman, Latimer, Clink and Robb preceded his starting his own law firm in Grandville. There, he practices in a broad array of areas, including wills, probate of estates, guardianships, powers of attorney, divorce and other family law including juvenile law, and real estate such as deeds, landlord/tenant disputes, purchase agreements, and land contracts. He also represents both plaintiffs and defendants in civil suits, and does criminal defense.

It has been primarily in the family law area that he has specialized for his pro bono service. Explains LAWM’s Lacy Cook, Fund Development Director, “Nearly all of the referrals made to Pete are for Spanish (only) speaking individuals - primarily the victims of domestic violence for help getting a divorce.”

Garthe says that most of the divorce cases he handles for LAWM are routine. “In several of my cases, the husband was actually in Mexico or maybe just in the Southwest United States,” he says, “but the clients are  really just basically dealing with issues of parenting time and child support and those types of things that are pretty run of the mill.”

He adds that he works to stay current with Spanish terminology regarding family law.

The Michael Barnes Award is not the result of a nomination process. LAWM staff puts together a list of prospective candidates and reviews them based on a number of criteria, including the number of cases handled and the amount of time devoted. In this case, Garthe’s proficiency in Spanish was a big factor in his selection, since LAWM has only a couple of support staff who speak the language, and no attorneys.

According to Paul Abrahamsen, who runs the Pro Bono Program for LAWM, “Pete’s ability to help us with those cases is invaluable. Pete seems to be a low-key, humble, down-to-earth person. I don't recall his every turning us down when we have asked for his help.” Garthe has just agreed to take on three new cases.

The award’s namesake was a dynamic and selfless attorney who worked for Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, which sponsors the Michael Barnes Award reception.

That reception was held on Oct. 25 and drew dozens of people to the fourth floor of the B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids, including many former Michael Barnes winners.

The emcee for the evening, former honoree Paul Jensen, noted that many of the Michael Barnes award-winners go on to win the Cummiskey Pro Bono Award from the State Bar of Michigan.
Ray Kent, Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Michigan, introduced Garthe and gave him the award. Kent started out by saying that no one knows why Garthe’s given name is Donald but he is called “Pete.” (Even the Garthe Law website refers to the reason as “unknown.”)

Kent said jokingly that in preparation for the introductions, he had talked to scores of lawyers and judges around the area, “trying to get dirt on Pete.”  He reported, “I have failed miserably.”

The dozens of glowing comments on Garthe, including that he is a “formidable opponent in court,” could be summarized by someone who said, “He epitomizes the character traits that make a great lawyer.”

When it was his turn to speak, Garthe started out, “We all do pro bono work and most don’t get awards.” He went on to indicate his gratitude both for the honor and for the fact that his family could be together to see him receive the award.

He introduced his wife and his three daughters, Susan, who lives in Cadillac; and Christine and Patricia, who live in the Greater Grand Rapids area. He has seven grandchildren, and one more on the way.
Garthe feels strongly that the legal profession would be greatly improved by more on-the-ground legal representation done pro bono. “I really would like to pitch attorneys taking these types of cases,” he says. “As compared to the work of the Legal Assistance Center, for example, I think this  is a much better way to serve others — to actually represent them at no cost. Even though I see that there’s a need for helping people do IPP cases, and our Legal Assistance Center does good work, I believe the pro bono system is a better way to achieve the same ends.”