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Toledo Legal News - News Music man Judge Byers loves to help people both in, and out, of his courtroom


photo of Judge Gary ByersFor the past twelve years, Judge Gary Byers, who sits on the Municipal Court Bench in Maumee, has spent his Friday afternoons at Union Elementary School, playing guitar and leading early education sing-alongs. “What's lovely is at that age kids have no inhibitions. If they don't like you, they'll tell you. But if they do like you, they'll run right up and hug you.” Tall enough and built appropriately to play power forward, it's hard not to imagine the school children using the affable, easy-going judge as a human jungle gym. “I'm a big hit with first graders. It goes downhill as they get older.”

Judge Byers is in the habit of saying mildly self-deprecating things; of downplaying his accomplishments and activities. It's part of the sense of humor he possesses that balances out his sincerity. For instance, he talks about how he and his wife, attorney Joan Rife bike, “we cycle in the Summer, weather permitting” what he really means is that they travel out West and pedal their way through 100 mile trips. Additionally he refers to Joan as, “the real lawyer in the family. Joan can keep more balls in the air than anybody I've ever had occasion to know. She's much better at multi-tasking than me. She's much more organized and qualified than I can ever hope to be.” Statements like that are nice and sweet, but they do strain credulity a tad. After all, Judge Byers is no slouch nor slacker.

As the only Municipal judge in Maumee, Judge Byers hears anywhere between 15 and 17 thousand cases a year. Doing the math reveals that more than 50 cases a day get processed through Judge Byer's court. And even after he's cleared off his docket, his day still isn't finished.

The Judge, who grew up a little south of Akron, sits on a number of committees for the Ohio Supreme Court that deal with technology. “One of my hobbies that relates directly to my job is how technology can be utilized by the court system to become more efficient without depersonalizing the process.” Among other things, the Judge has installed a video conferencing system between the court house and jail, which reduces the number of people who need to be transported from the jail to the court and back and saves the city around 100 thousand dollars a year in transport costs. “I only use the video system on routine issues. On matters which require credibility evaluations I don't use it, I want everyone in the room for that sort of thing.”

In addition, Judge Byers is also very active in his community. He is especially distinguished for his service to the Sunshine Children's Home, who's board he has been a member of for nearly 20 years. The Sunshine Children's Home is a home for mentally and developmentally disabled children (and adults as well now that people with disabilities are living longer) which was founded in the 1950's at a time when most children with mental retardation were simply placed in an institution. The Home currently serves the needs of more than 300 individuals. “It's a good group of folks there and they do an awful lot of good.”

As if all that weren't enough, Judge Byers also makes plenty of time for his family. He was a Boy Scout leader for years when his two sons were younger (his eldest son is an Eagle Scout and his youngest will become one next year). He coached soccer and rode horses, English style, with his daughter. Now that she's in college, it's Dad's job to get out to the barn and take care of her steed. Judge Byers has taught himself to speak German and French and is currently learning Italian. He and his wife took up sailing in the early 1980's just so they'd have something to talk about outside of the legal field. Of course, there are some drawbacks to all this activity. “The problem is, all these hobbies, they're inconsistent. The horse is never getting on the boat. I just know it.”

The administration of justice, the adaptation of technology, community service and a wide and diverse range of personal interests make Byers one of the more well rounded judges in Northwestern Ohio. And it doesn't stop there.

Judge Byers attended Hiram College, a small liberal arts school in Northeast Ohio, in the 1970's and double majored in both political science and music, clarinet and voice (you may have noticed him on-stage at the Gridiron Show, even though he, in typical fashion, attributes his presence there to nothing more than, “a lack of judgment”). At Hiram Judge Byers played in the concert band, sang in choir concerts and swam breaststroke. If nothing else, it cannot be said of Judge Byers that he was afraid to stretch himself. “I was interested in becoming a lawyer, but I didn't want to close off any options. I liked Hiram because it let me be broad, it let me explore.”

After graduating from Hiram College, Judge Byers moved to Toledo to attend law school at UT in 1978. While taking courses, Judge Byers also began working at the Public Defender's office. It was as a law student that the Judge had his first jury trial. “It was against a city prosecutor. There was a staff lawyer from the Public Defender's office but it was my case.” The Judge won.

After graduating from UT, Judge Byers began a private practice with a few other lawyers. In June of 1982 Judge Byers also began doing felony trial work for the County Prosecutor's Office. He would stay there and maintain his private practice until 1988 when he became the director for the Board of Elections. From there he became the head of the Toledo Office of the State Attorney General, who at the time was Lee Fisher. Finally in 1993, Byers was elected to the Maumee Municipal Court and took the bench in 1994 and has been there ever since. “Being the judge in Maumee is the best job there is, it really is. You can really have an impact on people's lives.”

And really, making an impact, leaving an impression and changing things for the better is what Judge Byers, ultimately, is all about. Spending time with his children, singing silly songs for school kids, working with the developmentally disabled, working with young lawyers in the Gridiron Show and the hundred other things the Judge does are all really about helping to make things better. “A lot of judges think that doing a good job means making the right decisions and working hard. But it's about more than sitting in judgment of folks. It's also about being active in the community. Community is important.”

Michael Davisson, Toledo Legal News Staff Writer

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