Thomas Butt is an attorney, like his father. He has also served many terms as Washington County Circuit Judge in Fayetteville, Arkansas.Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/9/21/98 Washington County Chancellor Tom Butt, 81, still holds court. In 2000, 50 years will have passed since Butt, the longest-serving judge in Arkansas and perhaps in state history, was elected chancellor. Headline : Chancellor Butt has spent nearly 50 years of hard work and no nonsense on the bench FAYETTEVILLE -- As far as Washington County Chancellor Tom Butt knew, Shirley Curry was just a person he ruled against in another emotional custody case. On July 20, 1974, the day after the ruling, a detective woke Butt by calling him at 4 a.m. Curry went on a shooting rampage, killing her ex-husband, her ex-sister-in-law and her three children -- 17, 14 and 11. She outlined her murderous plans on a cassette tape police found. "We heard the tape," the detective told Butt. "She said, 'The next person I'm after is that man in the black robe.' " Police arrested Curry before she could follow through with her threat. At 61, she's serving life without parole in an Arkansas prison.
Twenty-four years later, at 81, Butt is still trying custody cases. In 2000, 50 years will have passed since Butt, the longest-serving judge in Arkansas and perhaps in state history, was elected chancellor. He recently had a rebirth of sorts. On Aug. 31 he marked the first anniversary of his second marriage. Lawyers and others who work with Butt say he remains personable, knowledgeable, hard-working and sharp on the bench. While he hasn't lost his sense of humor, he's retained his grit, a no-nonsense attitude and a demand for decorum and proper legal procedure. Lawyers know better than to play games in Butt's court. It's a lesson a man upset over the judge's ruling in a property dispute quickly learned one day some 40 years ago. "This fellow came into my office pretty hot around the collar," Butt recalled last week. "He thought I was crooked and had been bought out by the other side. I lost my cool and said, 'You son of a b****, you get out of this office.' " The judge paused in the middle of the story, embarrassed by the memory. He was young and inexperienced. I would not do that now," Butt said, pausing again, gazing upward in thought. "Well, I'm not sure I wouldn't do it, either, because that cuts pretty close to the bone when somebody accuses you of selling out to the other side."
'CREDIT TO THE STATE' Born March 26, 1917, in Eureka Springs, Thomas F. Butt is nowhere near slowing down if family history means anything. His grandfather, William Alvin Butt, lived to be 94; his father, Festus Orestes Butt, practiced law for more than 70 years before his death in 1972 at 97. Ripley's Believe It or Not noted Festus' longevity with a comic strip. William Alvin Butt, a Union veteran from the Civil War, moved to Arkansas from Illinois to work on the railroad when Festus was 9. Butt's other grandfather, Andrew Jackson Cox, an Alabama native, fought for the Confederacy. Butt followed his father into law, graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Law School in 1938.
One of his first cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The telephone company sued a woman who allowed university students free use of a telephone at her cafeteria. The telephone company accused her of cutting into its profits, saying a pay phone should be installed at the caeteria for student use. The woman hired Butt, and the high court sided with him. It ended up as his only case before the Supreme Court. "I was able to brag after that that I won every case I ever had in the Supreme Court," Butt said. During World War II, Butt served as a military lawyer, investigating claims by European civilians that soldiers had damaged their property. In 1949, his brother, John K. Butt, the chancellor in Fayetteville, died in a car wreck. The next year, Butt ran to fill the vacant spot. He won, he said, not by his own merit, but by the great respect the people had for his brother. Over the years, however, the younger Butt slowly distinguished himself. The military awarded him the Legion of Merit for his service as chief judge of the Court of Military Appeals, although he was never called to active duty. That court hears appeals from court martials in each branch of the armed forces. He retired in 1972 as a brigadier general. Other honors include the Arkansas Certificate of Merit for his work as chairman of the Judicial Discipline Commission and the American Bar Association's Award for Judicial Excellence, a national distinction given a handful of judges each year.
Lewis Jones, a lawyer in Fayetteville for 43 years, says Butt has a calming influence in the courtroom. He recalled one case about 20 years ago when about 50 or 60 angry "mountain-type people" gathered in Butt's courtroom over a custody battle. The judge, like he does after all cases, explained his decision in detail and complimented both sides. "I'm convinced that's what prevented bloodshed in the courtroom," Jones recalled. State Supreme Court Justice Bob Brown and others cite Butt's colorful speech and marvel at his vocabulary. His Southern gentlemanly manner and down-home phrases impress others. "He has a really refined sense of justice and has the mannerisms and decorum of a Shakespearean actor," Brown said. "He's a real credit to the state. He's unique."
'A POST TO WHACK A GNAT' Currently, Butt finds himself in a dispute with the county's other judges. He's been the lead opponent of a statewide movement to combine the circuit and chancery courts. Circuit courts handle mostly civil suits and criminal cases while chancellors, such as Butt, hear mostly divorces and land disputes. At a recent Washington County Bar Association lunch , Butt spoke strongly against the plan that he described as "using a post to whack a gnat." Favoring the plan was one of Butt's lunch buddies, Fayetteville attorney John Everett, sitting two chairs to the judge's left. Showcasing his sense of humor, Butt reminded the crowd he and Everett disagree, "but you can see we're just as much in love with each other as ever." The attorneys and University of Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, the speaker at the lunch, roared in laughter. By a show of hands, the bar sided with Butt, voting 43-32 against recommending a similar plan to the Legislature. A few days before the vote, a lawyer suggested a secret ballot, in part because some feared alienating the veteran judge -- lawyers hate to offend judges. But the proposal was rejected, Everett said. He describes Butt as "perfectly fair," and unlikely to hold a grudge. Driving back to the courthouse in his light blue, 1989 Honda Civic station wagon, Butt is consumed by the court proposal. Car after car passes him as he cruises slowly down Archibald Yell Boulevard, detailing the history of the state's court system. The current system is fine, he said, as long as folks work together. Over the last decade, some lawyers grumbled that maybe Butt was too old and had worn out his black robe. Some cite his continued opposition to court consolidation.
In 1990, Butt faced a challenger for re-election for the first time in his political career. Butt won by a 3-2 margin. 1996 was tougher. He faced opposition in the Democratic primary and from a Republican in the general election. His opponents told people he was slipping. It was time for new blood, they said. There was some talk that Butt should switch parties, since Northwest Arkansas has become strong GOP territory. Butt refused and campaigned door-to-door for hours each day in the sun, shaking as many hands as he could, asking for votes. A small group of county lawyers secretly supported his Republican opponent Jim Burnett, a former judge in Lonoke County, Everett said. But the majority in the bar openly supported Butt. The incumbent lost Washington County but received enough votes in Madison County, the other county covered by his judicial circuit, to squeak by -- 25,731 to 25,473.
'AS LONG AS I CAN' The close vote didn't insult Butt, despite his years of service. He said he understands that someone could legitimately make a political issue out of his age. He said people have a right to chose their leaders, even if that means he may lose. "I'm just hanging around as long as I can," he said. "My guess is that when my present term ends I'll retire as gracefully as I can." In 1997, Butt disposed of 1,321 cases compared to 1,369 filings, a rate better than average, according to the state Administrative Office of Courts. "Chronologically he's 80-plus but his mental stamina is 60," said Everett, a lawyer since 1974. "You can't imagine the respect he has. He's a nice guy. He's learned. He's interesting to talk to. He'll take young lawyers by the ears ...to show them what needs to be done and mold them. That's what he did with my generation." For example, one day last week a lawyer asked to call his client for rebuttal testimony. Butt quickly reminded the lawyer he may call his witness but not for rebuttal testimony. He then defined the legal term. "Thank you, your honor," replied the humbled lawyer.
Butt believes lawyers still have much to learn after passing the bar exam. "He proceeds to teach them," Jones said. "He's not liked generally by the young lawyers." One lawyer, Kathryn Platt, 30, said she enjoys going before the judge. She just has to remember to stay alert and respectful, she said. Technology and society, however, have changed since Butt took office in 1950. Last week he questioned a witness at length about her caller ID box and how call-blocking works. He's also frustrated by court delays caused by interpreters for the growing Hispanic population in Northwest Arkansas. "If you ask a [Hispanic] fellow what time did he get up this morning, instead of saying '6:30/ he'll ripple on for about 30 seconds and then the translator says, 'He got up at 6:30,'" Butt said. Butt doesn't appreciate his time being wasted. He'll do what the law says, even if he doesn't agree with it. He said he "detests" a law requiring him to issue domestic protective orders if shown evidence of violence. Ordering people to stay away from each other solves nothing, he said. He grew impatient last week after a couple testified they had been married for 20 years but that they never liked each other. He approved the protective order against the husband but said they should hire a lawyer and get divorced. "What these people need are to be taken out with a wet rope and given a whuppin'," the white-haired, thin-mustached, red-faced Butt said, peering behind his glasses as he rocked in his courtroom chair.
Older lawyers such as Everett openly disagree with the judge on some topics. Almost every afternoon, Everett joins Butt for lunch at Hoffbrau steakhouse on Center Street, a block from the old courthouse. Other regulars include Circuit Judge Bill Storey and Municipal Judge Rudy Moore, old Bill Clinton confidants, and attorney Woody Bassett. "It's the Round Table," Butt joked. "Although, it's not round; it's oblong. Everybody's an expert on something. All amounts of wisdom is passed around." Recently, the group was lamenting Clinton's troubles and offered theories on what the scandal will bring next. Then, they plotted mock attempts to steal a fellow lawyer's Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Bassett said he can always count on Butt for lunchtime facts or theories on the Civil War. A Confederate sympathizer, Butt would have pleased his Alabama grandfather. "My perception of the Constitution is that a state had a right to secede," Butt explains. "Well, it didn't work, and we're better off for it."
'FORGOT HOW TO COURT' Away from the courthouse bunch, Butt spends his time tending his vegetable garden and spoiling his five grandchildren. Three are nearby, the children of his youngest son, Jack Butt, a Fayetteville attorney. Two grandchildren are in San Francisco with his son, Thomas K. Butt, an architect. A third son, Martin, died in a car wreck in the early 1970s after returning from the Vietnam War. His first wife, the former Cecilia King, died in 1991 after a prolonged battle with emphysema. For the last 18 months of her life, she required constant attention. Butt took her to hospitals in Denver and Tucson, Ariz., but the treatments failed. Initially, he never thought about remarrying. Later, however, he began corresponding with Frances Trotter, a friend of his late wife who had moved to Mississippi some 30 years earlier. She had recently been widowed and after a while they arranged a meeting. For their first anniversary, they spent a few days at a lakeside bed-and-breakfast Oklahoma. "After being married to Cecilia for 50 years, I forgot how to court," he said. "[Frances and I] just met each other and let each other know we found each other's company pleasant. I don't care about movies; neither does she. I like reading and she's an avid reader. We both like classical music. We figured we'd better quit seeing each other or get married."
Friends say he doesn't take himself too seriously. When he's not wearing his black robe, it lies crumpled on a chair. "I'm going to burn this damn robe someday," he growled, frustrated with the robe's difficult zipper as he left his chambers for a hearing. The day's court business had lasted longer than he thought. At 5 p.m., he quickly tossed his robe and donned his hat and wrinkled light blue pin-striped blazer. Come back tomorrow, he tells a visitor. "I've got a date with my wife," he said, smiling. __________________________
2/18/00 Northwest Arkansas Times: Judge retiring out of 'fairness to the people'
Washington County Chancery Judge Thomas Butt, battling cancer since November, has decided to retire after nearly 50 years on the bench. In a letter being sent to local media today, Butt, 82, will announce he is retiring effective March 26, and has requested the governor to appoint an interim judge to serve until this year's general elections. Contacted at his home Thursday, Butt said his health complications were keeping him away from work too often for him to remain on the bench, and said he was retiring "for fairness to the people." The judge said he was leaving office at the recommendation of his doctor.
Butt is the oldest and longest-serving judge in Arkansas, taking office in 1951 when only two judges served Washington County. He has practiced law for 61 years. Known as an eloquent orator and Southern Democrat, he has attracted attention on several fronts, including his adamant appeal to local attorneys two years ago to reject a plan consolidating the chancery courts of equity with the circuit courts of civil and criminal law. After a stirring speech to the local bar association, the measure was defeated locally but will be decided by Arkansas voters soon. "I do have strong opposition to the proposal to eliminate the chancery court," Butt told the bar. "My opposition is based in tradition, custom and habit,"
Butt also garnered attention for honoring his southern roots. Often seen in a light blue suit and gentlemanly straw hat, he posted a notice on his door every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, advising his court would be closed for Robert E. Lee Day in honor of the Confederate general's birthday. The Washington County Courthouse finally followed suit this year, posting a notice on the courthouse doors that the building was closed in honor of both the civil rights leader and Lee.
Butt has also had his share of dangerous backlashes to his rulings. In 1974, he denied a mentally disturbed Lowell woman custody of her two sons, and she retaliated by executing both of them while they slept and then killing three other members of her family who had testified against her. In the woman's letters and tapes, investigators later found direct references to Butt and believed he might have been a target of Shirley Marie Curry, now a 63-year-old life inmate in a state penitentiary. The judge said he had received a lengthy letter from the convicted killer just last year. ___________________________
2/18/00 Springdale Morning News: Judge Butt to resign because of illness
Chancellor Thomas F. Butt, 82, the longest serving judge in Arkansas history, will resign because of illness. Butt made his decision public Thursday in a letter to The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas after a meeting with judicial colleagues in Fayetteville. Butt, a chancellor and probate judge in the 4th Chancery Circuit, composed of Washington and Madison counties, will resign on March 26, his 83rd birthday.
"This early retirement (by two years) for reasons of health, is deemed proper in the best interest of the people of the 4th Circuit," Butt wrote. "I have been privileged, beyond my deserts, to serve as judge for 50 years, for which I am profoundly grateful, not alone to the people who have elected and re-elected me, but as well to the members of the bar and my fellow judges, who have uniformly accorded me all courtesies and support in the administration of justice in the 4th Circuit.
"I have enjoyed good health for all of my adult life until quite recently when a wholly unexpected illness struck me, without warning, requiring me to leave my office for the past three months," Butt continued. "The people are entitled to a full-time judge, and that I can no longer give them.
"Thus I take early retirement with regret that I cannot fulfill my contract with the people, but with the sure knowledge that a successor will be named and elected who can and will do a creditable job the better to serve the people. I am more grateful than I can adequately express to all who have supported and helped me during my tenure in office, and I entertain the hope that my services have been generally acceptable to the public whom it has been my duty and pleasure to serve."
Butt has long been considered the senior judge of the Arkansas judiciary, serving on the bench since he was first elected in 1950. He is currently in the midst of a six-year term to which he was elected in 1996. Butt, a 1938 graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, was elected after his brother, Chancellor John K. Butt, was killed in an automobile accident. Thomas Butt was first hospitalized in late November after returning home from vacation. Tests then revealed a cancerous condition in his lung. After undergoing radiation treatment, Butt had said earlier this year that he expected to recover and come back to the bench. In the interim, local judges and judges appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts have been filling in where needed.
Butt's decision to step down before the May primaries will allow Democrats and Republicans to field candidates for the office, one of whom will be elected in the November general election and take office Jan. 1. Gov. Mike Huckabee will presumably appoint someone to fill the position through the end of the year. Had Butt waited until after the November general election to step down, Huckabee would have appointed someone to complete the remainder of Butt's term, ending Dec. 31, 2002.
Butt is the second chancellor to announce retirement this year. Chancellor John Lineberger, 62, announced earlier that he would forgo seeking re-election in order to spend more time with his family and pursue other interests. He has served for 25 years.
2/19/99 Northwest Arkansas Times: Colleagues speak of civility, eloquence of retiring judge
Chancery Judge Thomas Butt will perhaps be best remembered for the decorum and civility he brought to the 4th Circuit bench during his 50-year tenure. As news of the 82-year-old judge's retirement trickled through the law offices of Washington County Thursday and Friday, colleagues spoke highly of him and the eloquence and respect he brought to the bench.
"He has one of the best reputations statewide as far as a fair and impartial judge and he's well thought of by every judge in this state," said Circuit Judge Kim Smith, who's served alongside Butt the last 13 years. "He's very highly respected by all his peers on the bench."
Circuit/Chancery Judge Mary Ann Gunn concurred with Smith, reiterating his importance to the local bench. "I feel that his presence on the bench for the last 50 years and his leadership to the bar has been, and will continue to be, an invaluable asset to this community and the state of Arkansas," Gunn said. "He inspires not only attorneys but me as a judge. He inspires that higher calling to the law, one of honor and integrity."
Citing his battle with cancer, which he was diagnosed with three months ago, Butt announced Thursday he will retire on his 83rd birthday March 26, leaving the position open for a temporary appointee and this year's general elections.
A signed letter of retirement was sent to local lawyers, judges and media Thursday, thanking the citizens of the 4th Judicial Circuit for their support.
"I have been privileged, beyond my desserts, to serve as judge for 50 years, for which I am profoundly grateful, not alone to the people who have elected and re-elected me, but as well to the members of the bar and my fellow judges, who have uniformly accorded me all courtesies and support in the administration of justice in the 4th Circuit," Butt wrote.
The Washington County Bar Association is holding a reception for Butt on March 1, his last scheduled day on the bench, and is planning another tribute to the retiring judge.
"He's the most respected jurist in the state," said Kitty Gaye, bar president. "We're all very sorry to see him go."
Lawyers who've practiced in Butt's court for decades remember him as a civil and respectful judge.
"I've known Judge Butt since the '50s, and have practice before him since 1962," said lawyer Bill Bassett. "While to some, his manners might have seemed old fashioned, to me they weren't. They just kept demonstrating his respect for the law."
Butt attended the University of Arkansas School of Law and practiced law for 12 years before elected to the chancery bench in 1950. Serving in World War II, he was appointed Judge Advocate General before taking the local judgeship. He took the chancery seat of his brother, John Butt, who had died in a car accident that year on Mountainburg Road.
His tenure on the bench was highlighted with his service as president of the Arkansas Judicial Council in 1956 and 1957. The council later handed him the Community Service Award in 1993.
Smith said local judges entered him into a national contest after he won that distinction, and he was bestowed the Award of Judicial Excellence by the National Conference of State Trial Judges during their national conference in August 1996.
Lewis Jones, a local lawyer who coordinated Butt's last run for office - one of only a few he was opposed in - said Butt made a run for the Arkansas Supreme Court years ago, but his lack of statewide recognition led to his only electoral defeat.
Butt became known for his steadfast devotion to courtroom decorum and a gift of eloquence, both in speech and writing.
"He has been (a mentor) as far as the conduct of the trial and the decorum in the courtroom and the civility that a judge should always show the litigant and attorneys," Smith said. "Judge Butt never gets mad, he never gets ruffled. He's very courteous to everyone."
Lawyers remember him for the notes of congratulation or compassion he often hand-wrote them. Beneath a nearly illegible scribbling were spirit-filled words few forgot.
"His ability to be eloquent, his ability to write, is something that all of us ought to strive for," Bassett said. "It's somewhat a lost art in this day and time. But he is just so articulate in the way that he writes, and the way that he speaks, and we could all learn from that."
Younger up-and-coming lawyers were also shaped by Butt's service on the bench. "In my mind, he's always been the grand ol' man of the law," Gaye said. "And he's taught generations of young lawyers how to do things, including me."
Circuit/Chancery Judge Mary Ann Gunn practiced law for 18 years in front of Butt, specializing in Chancery law. She remembers, as a young lawyer, feeling intimidated by the judicial icon. "As young lawyers, our legal education continued under his tutelage," Gunn remembered. "He was strict but fair - a kind judge who nurtured us as trial lawyers. And he engaged us intellectually as advocates of the law."
Bassett's son, Woody Bassett, agreed, saying the judge had instilled important lessons in new lawyers who practiced in his courtroom.
"Judge Butt has taught several generations of lawyers how to practice law," the younger Bassett said. "I know I - and any other lawyer - feel that he's an inspiration and a leader to younger lawyers."
Gunn will be one of the last two judges sworn in by the senior member of the bench. Along with fellow Circuit-Chancery Judge Stacey Zimmerman, she stood before the veteran jurist last year to take her oath of office.
"I love him and will miss him very much," she said. "As a judge, he's an icon." In his letter of retirement, Butt said he is stepping down so citizens can have a full-time judge, something that in light of his health, he can "no longer give them."
"Thus, I take early retirement with regret that I cannot fulfill my contract with the people, but with the sure knowledge that a successor will be named and elected who can and will do a creditable job the better to serve the people," Butt concluded in his letter. "I am more grateful that I can adequately express to all who have supported and helped me during my tenure of office, and I entertain the hope that my services have been generally acceptable to the public whom it has been my duty and pleasure to serve."
State's longest-serving judge leaving bench on 83rd birthday ANDY DAVIS ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE This article was published on Saturday, February 19, 2000
FAYETTEVILLE -- The state's oldest and longest-serving judge announced Thursday that he will step down after 50 years on the bench.
Fourth Judicial District Chancellor and Probate Judge Thomas F. Butt, who colleagues said is one of the state's most learned jurists and an imposing figure on the bench, has been in radiation therapy for cancer in his left lung and suffered a relapse a few weeks ago. The cancer is now in remission, he said.
Gov. Mike Huckabee will appoint an interim judge to fill the remaining two years of Butt's term. Other judges have filled in for him, but Butt will don the robe one last time March 1 to say goodbye to his friends at the courthouse and will officially retire March 26, his 83rd birthday.
"I am more grateful than I can adequately express to all who have supported and helped me during my tenure in office, and I entertain the hope that my services have been generally acceptable to the public, whom it has been my pleasure to serve," Butt said in a statement.
Butt, a Eureka Springs native whose father practiced law for more than 70 years, graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville in 1938. One of Butt's first cases, a dispute between a woman and a phone company, went to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and Butt won.
He was elected chancellor in 1950 after his brother, Chancellor John K. Butt, was killed in a car accident. Only once, in 1968, did Butt run for another seat, on the state Supreme Court, and Butt said Friday that he's glad he lost.
"The only real benefit of serving on the Supreme Court is the prestige, which is worth about 25 cents," Butt said. "I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as trial work."
With his stone face and strict adherence to the law, Butt could be an imposing figure on the bench, colleagues said. Circuit-Chancery Judge Mary Ann Gunn remembers being fresh out of law school and facing the prospect of trying her first case in his court.
"The thought of being before him was a source of intimidation and fear among young lawyers," she said. "But our legal education under his tutelage was fair and strict."
A scholarly, "southern gentleman," he was a patient teacher for young lawyers, delighting in pulling a book from his extensive library to answer a question, said Circuit-Chancery Judge Stacey Zimmerman. Outside the courtroom, he's known for his seersucker suits and, in the summer, dapper straw hats, she said.
Butt has been a leading opponent of proposals to consolidate the circuit courts, which handle civil suits and criminal cases, and chancery courts, which handle divorces, custody issues, land disputes and other matters that don't require a jury. Arkansas voters will vote on an amendment to consolidate the districts in November, but Butt said he won't politick against it.
Butt also received attention for a 1976 custody case in which he denied custody to a woman who later killed her ex-husband, sister-in-law and three children. Shirley Curry is serving a life sentence and recently sent Butt a rambling but fairly cordial letter, he said.
More About Thomas Franklin Butt: Date born 2: March 26, 1917, Eureka Springs, AR.730 Burial: May 23, 2000, Fairview Memorial Gardens, Fayetteville, AR.
More About Thomas Franklin Butt and Cecilia King: Marriage 1: April 25, 1942, Fayetteville, Arkansas.731, 732, 733 Marriage 2: April 25, 1942, Batesville, AR.
Children of Thomas Franklin Butt and Cecilia King are: