To my father, the Judge, on his retirement
March 23, 2021
Reprinted with permission of the author and the Oklahoma County Bar Association’s The Briefcase.
by Jeremiah Buettner, shareholder, McAfee & Taft
On December 31, 2020, an era quietly (very quietly) ended with the retirement of Oklahoma Court of Oklahoma Civil Appeals Judge Kenneth Buettner. Judge Buettner served the State, the Bar and – without getting too heavy-handed about it, Justice – for twenty-five years. In the interest of full disclosure, my opinion of him may be a bit biased, because in addition to his other great attributes and accomplishments, he also happens to be my father.
Judge Buettner is a born Oklahoman, graduating from Oklahoma City’s John Marshal High School before travelling down to Fort Worth to begin his undergraduate career at Texas Christian University. Judge Buettner’s Horned Frog period was clearly pivotal in his personal development, even beyond the continued propensity to wear purple with regal regularity. He obviously learned a lot, made a few lifelong friends, and – most importantly from my perspective – met my mother. In July of this year, they celebrated forty-five years of marriage, so that apparently worked out well for all concerned.
After graduation, Judge Buettner began his legal journey by attending law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, after which he served in the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps. In 1980, my family (which by this point included my sister Amy, but did not yet include me) retired from the Air Force, and my father pondered his professional options from their house in Colorado.
One day, Judge Buettner spoke to his mother, who was employed in the library and records room of a then-small Oklahoma City firm called McAfee & Taft, encouraging him to apply there and return to Oklahoma City. He did so, and worked as a litigator until February 1996, when Governor Frank Keating appointed him to the Court of Civil Appeals.
In the past forty years, Judge Buettner has participated in Leadership Oklahoma, Leadership Edmond, acted as a trustee for the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, was a trustee and President of the Edmond Public Schools Foundation, a member of the Parish Council and various boards and committees at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, and was active in the Oklahoma County Bar Association (including serving as its Vice President).
It is difficult to get a handle on a judge’s legacy. Notable judicial legacies have been crafted by promoting controversial jurisprudential or political positions, or writing groundbreaking decisions altering the course of extant case law. This is not exactly my father’s style.
When asked in 2012 why voters should retain him as a judge, he responded:
“Our job is to review the trial court judgment and the record of the case to determine whether an error has occurred in the trial court process or the application of law to the case. In performing that duty, we put on the blindfold of Lady Justice to disregard the status of the parties, or the reputation of the attorneys, or the winds of public opinion, and apply the law to the case. … That has been my operating principle.”
This response is all well and good, but is not exactly a hot take.
Nor is it easy to distill his legacy from a summary of his opinions. Unofficial statistics put the number of his authored opinions at well over 1,600, which expands to nearly 5,000 if you include concurrences and dissents. Needless to say, reviewing even a representative sample of these opinions to extract a unifying principle is daunting.
However, based on my knowledge of him, plus some key insights from a few co-workers, I can break my father’s judicial philosophy down into our parts.
Be Right (Follow the Law). One may be tempted to dismiss my father’s statement above as a generic response befitting election season, but here is the secret of Judge Buettner’s success: that opinion is not only honestly, but fervently held. To my father, even the toughest decisions come down to the simplest process: Understand the facts. Understand the law. Apply the law to the facts. Be exceedingly conscientious for each step, because whether the case is a landmark decision or an unpublished, non-precedential decision, every case impacts real people’s lives.
This directive was well known to his staff attorneys, who confirmed Judge Buettner’s dedication to following the law. One of Judge Buettner’s former staff attorneys, Bevan Stockdell, notes “he was absolutely dedicated to his work at the Court of Civil Appeals, and gave every case the contemplation it deserved, and took pride in each opinion.”
His position on this was also appreciated by his colleagues on the bench. Long-time friend and colleague Judge Larry Joplin noted that “[o]ne of the highlights of my time at the court has having Ken Buettner as a colleague. Not only does he have a deep knowledge of the law, but more importantly, he deeply appreciates the role the law plays in all activities, individually and collectively. Those are two qualities every appellate judge should have.”
“My father’s legacy, then, is not some arcane philosophical explanation synthesizing historical arguments of the law’s role in an ordered society; rather, it is the fact that every day, Judge Buettner manifested the law’s role in our ordered society.’Jeremiah Buettner
My father’s legacy, then, is not some arcane philosophical explanation synthesizing historical arguments of the law’s role in an ordered society; rather, it is the fact that every day, Judge Buettner manifested the law’s role in our ordered society. His legacy is the corpus of thousands of cases that he has participated in over twenty-five years. Those opinions mattered not just in the moment, but continue to form part of the legal landscape with impacts echoing throughout the future. And for Judge Buettner, each represented the best he had to offer.
Be Instructive. As his career long-time staff attorney Susan Beaty states, in addition to following the law “one thing that stands out is his interest in opinions being helpful and instructive to lawyers and judges.”
As a practitioner, I had the opportunity to see my father in action (well, in that I was reading something that he wrote) in a way many sons likely don’t get to experience. And I have to say, his opinions are excellent, and exactly what one wants as a litigator doing research. I say this without regard to whether I agreed with the decision itself, indeed, as I was never before my father as an attorney, my interaction was largely research, and the point in research is trying to determine what the law is. And there are no better judges for this purpose.
I recall my early, associate years reading decision after decision trying to discern the holding from dicta to the (quite-honestly) frequent tangents of the author. And while ambiguity can be helpful (depending on your position), finding the clearly set forth, expertly articulated answer is something practitioners appreciate. If your job was to answer a legal question, and you were fortunate enough to find a Judge Buettner opinion on the issue, you had your answer.
Be Productive. Ms. Stockdell notes that Judge Buettner was an early bird at the Court, often arriving before his colleagues and greeting them when they came in with an infectious smile. Ms. Beaty notes his dedication to “judicial economy and having a productive chambers.” In the same response in 2012, Judge Buettner noted the importance of not just being judicious but expeditious, noting that “if we do [our job] in a timely manner, all parties should feel that the appellate review of their case has been fair.” Judging by his stats, there can be little argument that he succeeded in this respect.
Be Happy. A final aspect of Judge Buettner’s tenure that bears noting is his personal impact. He is a people person that knows the importance of a leader’s disposition on his team, and that creating a joyful working environment was not just a good thing to do professionally, but something that was his responsibility as a good human being.
To Ms. Stockdell, he was a mentor that challenged her intellectually and always supported her professionally. “Working for Judge Buettner was truly a pleasure.” She recalls that his magnanimity and support started immediately. “I didn’t even have my bar exam results when I started [at COCA],” she recalls, with another telling detail about Judge Buettner’s ability to read people, “he went out on a limb and hired me right out of law school.” Judge Buettner’s ability to read people, and then support and encourage them was undoubtedly a key strength. Ms. Beaty reflects that “his commitment to doing good work, being productive, and making the court a happy place to work have made a lasting impression on COCA and Oklahoma Jurisprudence.”
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to touch on one of my father’s greatest achievements, at least from the point of his son: setting the absolute model of work-life balance. Nobody can question his dedication to his position, and yet his co-workers also could not help but note his dedication to his family. From his ascension to the bench (and, honestly, for as long as I can remember), my father’s arrival at home was consistently in time for family dinner. He is devoted to my mother, and was the epitome father. Like his opinions, his parental rulings were focused on the rule of the household, with that same attention to being instructive. Indeed, even when those rulings went against me, my father was never so much mad as concerned that I had learned why any misbehavior was wrong and, especially when it resulted in negative consequences, that I did not leave the issue without learning from it.
I expect my father to be mortified at the existence of an article of this length doting on him. Of all his qualities, his humility is an obvious one, but a thematically difficult one to praise and honor. So, instead of describing the near saint-like lack of arrogance and presumption, I’ll honor him by doing what he would do in this situation: diffusing praise on others. Over the past 25 years, he has worked with several highly qualified staff attorneys, which he insists (enthusiastically) were instrumental in his job. He would also want me to honor his colleagues on the bench, whom he always speaks of with warmth and respect. And, of course, he would want to point out the love and support of his wife, Barb Buettner.
Congratulations on retirement, Dad.