In Memoriam The Honorable Walter H. North

October 7, 1952

Services held by the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan, on Tuesday, October 7, 1952, at 2:00 p.m.

JUSTICE JOHN R. DETHMERS: The Court is convened in honor of the memory of its late Chief Justice, WALTER H. NORTH. Present are members of his family, many of his close friends and associates, and distinguished members of the bench and bar, among them the Honorable Lester P. Dodd, President of the State Bar of Michigan who will speak for the State Bar and the lawyers of Michigan. Mr. Dodd.

 MR. LESTER P. DODD: May it please the Court: We gather here today to pay reverent tribute to the memory of a man who contributed mightily to the stature and renown of this Honorable Court. No man could serve as a member of this, or any other, appellate court for a quarter of a century without leaving his permanent imprint thereon and on the record of his time. A Justice of a great appellate court must necessarily leave behind him an indelible record–a record which attests the quality of his wisdom–the degree of his passion for justice–the soundness of his philosophy of life and the law.

The record of the judicial life of Justice WALTER H. NORTH is written in 193 volumes of the reports of this Court – 98 of them while he sat as a Circuit Judge and the last 95 as a member of this Court – a voluminous record, but, far more important, an honorable and inspiring record. That record was written largely by the man who knew him best, Justice NORTH himself.

In his opinions is the man personified. Never a spectacular figure–quiet, gentle, kindly and unassuming, but the possessor, in generous abundance, of those qualities which mark always the able jurist–a sound knowledge of the law–an innate wisdom an intense and unselfish desire to see simple justice done between men and men’s causes.

For generations to come men’s lives and liberties and property rights will be affected by the opinions of the men who have constituted the Court in our generation. Among the many able men who sat on this Court in our time Justice NORTH stands out. Along with the late and revered Justice HOWARD WIEST he personified old-fashioned integrity–adherence to basic principles–consistent refusal to yield to the temptation to embrace as new principles what experience teaches are only the passing fads and fancies of changing times.

I shall always associate in my mind Justices NORTH and WIEST. Totally dissimilar in appearance, in temperament and personality, each possessed that God given quality, than which there is no greater and for which there call be no substitute, a complete integrity. I shall never be able to read the simple phrase so often found at the end of a reported case, “WIEST concurred with NORTH” or “NORTH concurred with WIEST,” without a nostalgic feeling–a sense of loss resulting not merely from the passing of stalwart men but engendered to a certain extent by the feeling that their passing marks the passing of an era.

But in a very real sense Justice NORTH has not passed on. He lives, and will continue to live, not alone in his written opinions and in the formal records of the Court, but in the traditions of this great Court which he helped so greatly to enrich and in the minds and hearts of his colleagues and members of the Bar.

On behalf of the Bar of this State, which I have the honor to represent here today, let me say simply, if it please the Court: We mourn the passing of a wise and good Judge and a kindly friend, but we take infinite comfort and inspiration in the sure knowledge that his life has brought, and in the years to come will continue to bring, us ever closer to that common goal, the true administration of justice among men.

JUSTICE DETHMERS: Thank you, Mr. Dodd.

Many long years ago, as a young man, Justice NORTH began the practice of the law in Calhoun county in the city of Battle Creek and later presided for years as the Circuit Judge of that circuit. To the very end he considered that his home county and city. Present are many of his associates and those who practiced law with him when he was at the Bar. At this time, speaking in behalf of the Calhoun County Bar and the lawyers from that circuit the Court will be pleased to hear from Mr. Howard Cavanagh.

 MR. HOWARD CAVANAGH: Chief Justice and Members of the State Supreme Court, Mr. President of the State Bar Association, Honorable Judge Hatch and Honorable Harold E. Steinbacher, Members of the Calhoun County Bar Association, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I feel deeply honored on this memorial occasion to speak for the Calhoun County Bar Association with which the late Justice NORTH kept his membership, and of which he was so long an honored member. Battle Creek was always his home town, and I feel a sense of great personal responsibility attached to being requested to and to properly express the sentiments of regard and affection which the Bar of Calhoun County has always felt for him during his long and devoted attention to his profession as lawyer and Judge while he was actively engaged in Calhoun County; and also after his elevation in 1927 to the Supreme Court, his loyal adherence to his contacts and associations in Battle

To WALTER HARPER NORTH the legal profession was his passion, and his whole life was devoted to the high ideals of the law.

He was a native of Michigan, born in Hillsdale county, in 1871; graduated from the University of Michigan in 1899, and started to practice law in Battle Creek that same year. He was elected Circuit Judge in 1905 and held that office continuously until 1927 when Governor Green appointed him to the exalted position of Justice of the highest court in the State, which position he held at the time of his death. July 23, 1952, having been 53 years in the active practice of his profession, as practicing lawyer and Judge; and of this 53 years, 22 years were spent as Judge of the 37th Judicial Circuit and 25 years as Justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan. He was Chief Justice 4 times during that period, and he held that office on July 23, 1952, when “God’s finger touched him and he slept.”

In the 25 years he spent as Judge here in this historic building, he erected by his energy, indefatigable and faithful performance to his duties, a lasting, monument to his memory, more precious and abiding than all the marble monuments in this world and the vast number of his opinions embodied in 95 volumes of the reports of the Supreme Court of this State prove what deep thought, courage, industry and wide knowledge of the ramifications of the law are required of a Supreme Court Judge.

Judge NORTH never hesitated to devote all his splendid talents to the arduous duties of this exalted position with an eye single to doing exact justice to all alike. Never at any time deviating from the principles and legal precepts that have been long established in our jurisprudence, and being a worthy successor to all those immortals who have sat on this high tribunal, such as CAMPBELL, CHRISTIANCY, COOLEY, GRAVES and all the others whose portraits look so gravely and solemnly upon us today in this hallowed place, and we can feel the presence of all those who have gone before.

It was my good fortune to get acquainted with Justice NORTH when he came to Battle Creek in 1899, and I came to know him better during the years he was a practicing lawyer and all during his years as Judge of the 37th Judicial Circuit and as Justice of the Supreme Court. I knew him well professionally, fraternally and socially, and he was always the same kind and lovable gentleman, a true friend and an upright and great Judge and Justice. He had the respect and confidence of all who knew him, and withal he was essentially of a very retiring disposition, one who loved his home and home life, a kind and indulgent husband and father, true and trusted friend and neighbor, and never did I ever hear him speak ill of anyone or say any unkind words of or to others and I can only feelingly say of him what he so well said of his great good friend, the late Justice WIEST, in this very chamber on October 4, 1945, and apply it in the fullest measure to Justice NORTH. I quote:

“But were we today to respect the sincere wish of our departed friend and Brother, I am sure we would not indulge in excessive superlatives. Rather he would only have us say, – He was a man among men, one who was ever a seeker for truth and bent on the errand of doing simple, evenhanded justice.”

And in closing, I can say that, like Justice WIEST, his life work was what he did here, and in its fulfillment he was content and happy, although the closing years of his fruitful life were saddened by the loss of his beloved wife and son whose loss he bore with that same courage and fortitude that characterized his whole life, but solaced somewhat by the companionship of his surviving son and namesake, Walter P. North, of Battle Creek, and two daughters. I deeply feel a great personal loss in the passing of my friend, Justice NORTH, whom I admired and respected so highly for his sterling qualities of head and heart that made him good and great.

“Friend after friend departs,
Who has not lost a friend.
There is no union here of hearts,
That finds not here an end.”

JUSTICE DETHMERS: Thank you Mr. Cavanagh. If there are any present who desire to volunteer a word of tribute to the memory of Justice NORTH, the Court will be pleased to hear them at this time.

 JUDGE BLAINE W. HATCH, of the 37th Circuit: Mr. Chief Justice, Members of the Supreme Court and Members of the State Bar of Michigan and Calhoun County Bar Association:

I felt on this occasion that I wasn’t a good enough speaker to do justice to the memory of Justice NORTH and that Mr. Cavanagh, who had known him a great many more years than I, would be the one to take that place, and I fully appreciate it. I came back to the practice in Calhoun county when Judge NORTH was the Circuit Judge of that Circuit and I want to say that he was always very considerate and helpful to the young men starting out in practice. I consider that his record as Supreme Court Justice and as Circuit Judge in our county is an outstanding one. You knew him as a judge and jurist; I knew him as a friend, neighbor, family man and citizen. I wish to say at this time, that he was not only a good jurist, but also a truly great man and a loyal friend. I had the opportunity, one summer, of going North with him and our register of deeds on a little fishing trip through Canada. We all occupied an umbrella tent and slept out, and it is at that time that one gets to know another, and I found he was one of the finest men I ever knew and did not want to let this occasion go by without mentioning it.

Of course, I found it difficult to fill his position in Calhoun County after he left there for the Supreme Court. He made a wonderful record there, and when you go in and try to take the place of a man of his integrity, character, and ability, it isn’t easy. I found that out. Long after he left, people would come in and ask, “Where is Judge NORTH?” They all revered and respected him down in Calhoun county and I know the people of the State of Michigan admired him and respected him as a Justice of this Supreme Court.

JUSTICE DETHMERS: Thank you, Judge Hatch.

I well recognize that on a solemn occasion such as this it is not an easy matter to volunteer to speak a few words without preparation. If there are any others, the Court will be happy to hear you.

Associated with Justice NORTH on this Court for well nigh a quarter of a century was Justice HENRY M. BUTZEL. He will speak at the request and on behalf of the Court. Justice BUTZEL.

 JUSTICE BUTZEL: Friends and members of the family of the late Chief Justice WALTER H. NORTH, members of the Bar and my Colleagues:

We have set aside this hour to pay tribute to the memory of the late Chief Justice WALTER H. NORTH. It is a sad hour for all of us, and it is with considerable emotion that I speak on behalf of the Members of the Court, by whom I have been assigned the privilege of addressing you. I trust that you will pardon me if I also refer to my personal association with Judge NORTH, but I do it also in order to bring out some of his salient characteristics as evidenced in my own contact with him. I shall refer to Mr. Justice NORTH as Judge NORTH, as he was more intimately known to us.

At the time of his death on the 23rd of last July, Judge NORTH was almost 81 years of age. He had served his community and his State ably and faithfully ever since his youth. He was born on November 1, 1871. His parents were sturdy, hard-working and God-fearing people. He was brought up on a farm, where he became accustomed to hard work and devotion to duty. He managed to do other work, and it was largely through his own personal efforts and earnings that after completion of his public school education he was able to attend Hillsdale College, where he received an academic degree. He then went on to the law school of the University of Michigan and graduated in 1899. In 1942, the University of Michigan recognized Justice NORTH’S sterling, qualities and his outstanding work as a jurist by conferring upon him the honorary decree of Doctor of Laws. After his graduation from the law school he opened a law office in Battle Creek in partnership with Jesse H. Hatch, the father of the present Circuit Court Judge Hatch.

Two years later he entered into partnership with Duane C. Salisbury. This was shortly after the turn of the century, and it was about that time that I first became acquainted with Judge NORTH. I immediately recognized his ability, fairness, and good common sense. I remember that his office was located on the second floor of a 2-story building in Battle Creek. A Detroit construction company was erecting a small building for one of Judge NORTH’S clients, and an accident occurred through the negligence of someone. It was a question of determining who was responsible for the too hasty removal of part of the wooden supports over which concrete had been poured and which had not firmly set. As a result, a part of the building collapsed. I was retained by the construction company and went to Battle Creek, where I met Judge NORTH for the first time. Little did I think then that at a later date we would become associated together for almost a quarter of a century as Judges of the Supreme Court of Michigan. My client could ill afford to have a lawsuit, particularly in the home town of the plaintiff, with the resultant bad publicity of a collapse through the failure of the reinforced concrete to hold firmly, irrespective of where the blame lay. I found Judge NORTH very fair and reasonable, demanding only the cost of repairs, and we had no difficulty in quickly coming to a settlement. I came away not only well satisfied but greatly impressed by the bright, energetic and able young lawyer. He remained in private practice only a short time before he became a Judge of the Circuit Court of Calhoun County, on January 1, 1906, a position he held until his elevation to the Supreme Court. He popularized himself to the extent that he was highly esteemed and beloved by the citizenry of Battle Creek and Calhoun County, and was re-elected from time to time.

On October 24, 1927, after nearly 22 years of service as a Judge of the Circuit Court, he was appointed to this Court by the late Governor Green. Had Judge NORTH lived a few months longer, he would have been on the Supreme Court bench for a quarter of a century, and, in all, on the bench 47 years.

I renewed my acquaintance with Judge NORTH when I arrived here, in the summer of 1929, and was assigned the room next to his, the two of us having a joint room for our secretaries and also used as a waiting room. Judge NORTH extended the hand of friendship and fellowship to me, then a novice in this Court, and I cannot sufficiently express my appreciation both for his warm welcome and for his very valuable assistance, so much needed by a newcomer in this difficult work. I was overwhelmed by his ability, his knowledge of the law, his character and his industry. He possessed integrity, intelligence and industry in the highest degree, all of which go to make a good judge. I lived at a hotel opposite the Capitol, and, due to noises from the street or within the building, I arose early, usually arriving at the court rooms shortly after 7 o’clock in the morning. I always found the door leading to our joint waiting room wide open and Judge NORTH already at work. He worked hard all day and when evening came he always went home with a brief case loaded with briefs and records. I never knew a man of greater industry. In fact, during our noonday lunch hour, unless there was some business that needed immediate attention so as to detain us in the conference room where we ate lunch, Judge NORTH rushed back to his private office and used the extra half hour to continue his work. Nothing was ever too much for him. In a spirit of fellowship and the desire on the part of all of us to speed up the work of the Court–particularly with regard to its miscellaneous work, such as examining petitions to appeal and other matters incidental to the work of the Court–he always did far more than his share. He wanted to be helpful, and the work of the Court was paramount to everything else he had to do. I can only touch upon a few of these incidents.

At the time Judge NORTH came here, some of the rules of the Court had caused much grief and dissatisfaction. Many deemed such rules archaic and in need of revision. For example: They provided numerous method’s of appeal to the Supreme Court, each one exclusive of the other, but, if one selected the wrong stairway to reach this Court, say, on a writ of error instead of mandamus or certiorari, or vice versa, the mistake was fatal, and both client and attorney found their opportunity to appeal irretrievably lost. This was corrected by the new rules. Judge NORTH, with his vast experience as a Circuit Judge, coupled with a short period as a member of this Court, realized the unfairness of many of the old rules. Some of the judges were opposed to any change, in the belief that even rules that might be unsatisfactory had been passed upon by this Court after prolonged and extensive litigation; that the bench and the bar knew what they meant, so why stray into untried fields. We had the advantage of the assistance of a member of the faculty of the University of Michigan and the proponents for the change of the rules, largely under the leadership of Judge NORTH, prevailed. He continued to be foremost in urging the modernization of the rules. The new rules of 1931 were adopted, and 2 years later were again revised, since, by then, we could see the necessity for improving or correcting some of the new rules. From that time on Judge NORTH had charge of all proposed changes, which he carefully catalogued, and at intervals we would deliberate and make some changes. The 1945 revision is very much the same as the rules of 1933, and it was very appropriate that when Mr. Honigman edited his work on the Michigan rules, the foreword to the book was written by Justice WALTER H. NORTH.

Judge NORTH’S intelligent leadership, was valued and followed in the multitude of questions that arose, and we relied upon his judgment in arriving at our decisions and conclusions relating to the conduct and business of the Court. He was a man of progressive ideas. Unfortunately, the law is not an exact science, even though we do have certain principles by which we are bound. The Constitution is paramount to all else and we are also bound by the statutes adopted by the legislature, the Court itself having no legislative powers. Should the legislature, in its enactment, step beyond the provisions of the Constitution, the Court, of course, must set aside the statute. There is sometimes an ambiguity in a statute and the Court is called upon to construe it. We are a common-law State, and where the Constitution or statutes do not cover the point raised, we first go back to the common law for guidance. We also have adhered closely to the principle of stare decisis. There must be both uniformity and permanence in our decision. The law as expounded today is good for more than a day; it is the law for many years to come. However, if we find that, due to modern conditions, judge-made law results in injustice, we have no hesitancy in reversing our former decision. We might refer to the relicted land cases, or the law relating to imputed negligence. We have not hesitated to take a perfectly good law, but with some unnecessary and unconstitutional provisions in it, and to delete such provisions, thus leaving, a thoroughly complete and constitutional statute. We always found Judge NORTH in the vanguard in insisting that such changes be made. His mind was constantly at work in regard to some changes in our former opinions. He spoke to me frequently about his hope that a case would be presented so that a former decision in regard to the law of evidence by experts could be reconsidered and the principle therein enunciated be reversed. I constantly marveled at his fine, sensible and humane approach to the many questions that arose. The term “leader” should be applied to him in his desire to modernize the law so as to have it fit in with the mores, or changing conditions. When it came to questions of right or wrong, he was unbending and inveterate in his holding to the right, provided it could possible be done without making any bad law. As a great legal philosopher recently stated: “Violent breaks with the past must come indeed from legislation, but manifold are the occasions when advance or retrogression is within the competence of judges, as that competence has been determined by practice and tradition.”

We shall miss Judge NORTH as a leader in our Court. We hold him in the closest affection and esteem. We admired him, his ability, his character and his work. His death is a sad blow to this Court and to the State of Michigan. He will long be remembered for his friendship, geniality, character, and his outstanding work. Fame is evanescent. A judge of an appellate court leads a sort of parochial life; he is far away from the crowd. His work and his position prevent him from indulging in many of the activities in which he might otherwise participate, did he not occupy such a high judicial position with its heavy load of work and responsibility. Judge NORTH will long be remembered by all who knew him, and particularly for his work as a judge. His obituary is largely written in 95 volumes of the Michigan Reports, containing some 65,000 closely printed pages. One-eighth of the opinions therein contained were written by Justice NORTH, but all the others, together with the briefs and frequently the records, were examined by him before he concurred or, at times, dissented. Judge NORTH was a great man, a fine citizen, a dear friend, an able and conscientious judge, whose example we could all emulate. We are grateful for having had him as our friend and our associate. May his memory be blessed forever.


All that has been said on the occasion of this memorial session will be spread on the records of the Court and set forth in its published reports.

Now, out of respect to the memory of Justice NORTH, this Court stands adjourned.