Judge Buth, a youthful 70 years old, will retire after 30 years on the bench

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

As befits a man who has spent the last 30 years of his career practicing even-handedness, Judge George Buth can see both sides of the situation in which he finds himself — unable to run again for the 17th Circuit Court because he has reached the age of 70.

“I think I would do fine in another term if I was able to, but I also think age 70 is a good time to retire and do other things. I’ve heard colleagues say they know a number of judges who shouldn’t even serve until they’re 70, but at the same time there are plenty of long-time judges whose experience you don’t want to lose. It’s just like anything else, you get a mix,” Judge Buth says.

Recent studies have indicated that keeping the mind exercised, as a judge must do consistently, contributes to retaining mental powers until later in life, but Judge Buth may have another weapon on his side — longevity.
“My father is 99 years old,” he says. “And for 99, he’s doing pretty well.”

Whatever the reasons, Judge Buth appears much younger than his 70 years, and his calm, reasoned conversation gives every indication that he is in peak form.

Born in 1946 at Butterworth Hospital, Judge Buth says, “The only times I’ve been out of the area  were when I went to Michigan State and Wayne State for Law School.”

His degree from MSU was in general business administration, but he explains that it was more like a broad-ranging liberal arts education.

After that, from 1972 until 1986, he practiced with a few small firms and as a sole practitioner, focusing on criminal appeals. “That really helped prepare me for this job,” he comments. “I’d carefully reviewed numerous decisions by circuit judges and I knew what to look for and I knew the pitfalls right from when I started.”

After winning the first of five races for the judiciary in 1986, Buth has run unopposed. He notes that this is more often the case than not in Kent County.

It is clear that what most fascinates Judge Buth about his job is the people who come before him and how to manage his courtroom so that both parties are treated fairly.

“What most litigants want is to be heard, and for you as a judge to listen,” he says. “Certainly everybody wants the decision to go their way, but I think more important is litigants and victims want to be heard. So you need to be even-tempered, you need to be prepared, you need to be courteous, and you need to listen.”

Inherent in that is both not interrupting, which applies to the parties as well as to the attorneys representing them, and also being very careful to speak unemotionally and in a considered manner.

“I got this from Judge Benson, the lesson that you should be slow to speak. I took over his courtroom  and he even had a sign, ‘Think before you talk.’ And I think you grow to appreciate the attorneys and how knowledgeable they are on their clients’ cases,” Buth continues.

He says he was fortunate to be mentored by a great bench when he started, mentioning not only Judge Benson, who was probably most influential, but also Judge Hoffius and Judge Yared, whose seat he took.

And he said he will extend the same mentorship to Joe Rossi, who was successful in his bid to join the bench as Judge Buth’s replacement.

Buth notes that in order to protect everyone’s interests and avoid trials that are subject to appeal, a judge must make sure the lawyers on both sides of the dispute are doing their jobs. He cites, for example, a witness who might say something prejudicial about having had a conversation with the defendant while they were in prison. “Those are the kinds of things that you watch for,” Judge Buth says. “If it happens, well, you handle it differently in different cases, but you basically have to take a time out. Was this something the prosecutors should have anticipated or was it merely accidental? If they didn’t know the witness was going to say it, should they have known? Determining that is part of the judge’s job.”

Judge Buth also served as Chief Circuit Judge in the early 2000s. He says what he most enjoyed about that position was the relationship the court enjoys with Kent County. “Kent County is a great atmosphere to be in,” he says. “The people are very welcoming, and always willing to help out.”

Most of the memorable cases for Judge Buth were on the criminal side. He seems appalled, in his even-tempered way, with the crimes he has seen, and especially proud of some of the cold case murder trials over which he has presided.

One brutal case still sticks out in his mind, he says, referencing the exact spot where a woman’s body was found. “I can still picture the victim lying on the floor in a pool of blood. You don’t forget those pictures.”?he says.

Another memorable case was his first murder trial, where the victim was one of his clients at the time of her death. “She was convicted of a crime and I was her attorney for the appeal, and then she was murdered,” he explains, adding that the case was early in the career of Prosecutor Bill Forsyth, who has also just retired.

He also remembers, with slightly less gravity, a case where the perpetrator was standing in Walker and the crime was committed in Grand Rapids. “He was standing on the Walker side taunting police with a boa constrictor,” Buth recalls.

Adding that he is glad the 70-year age limit has relieved him of the need to make his own decision about retiring, Judge Buth says he looks forward to time with his family, which includes four children, three grandchildren, and his wife of 48 years.

A reception celebrating Judge Buth is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. Friday at the Kent County Courthouse.