Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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With the death on June 18, 1956, of John Rufus Booth in his eighty-third year, there ended a long life of service to the state and its people. Judge Booth was born in New Haven on September 26, 1873, the son of James Walter Booth and Marguerite Angaud Booth. He was named after his grandfathers, John Angaud and Rufus Booth. He had one sister, Lena, who, sixteen months his senior, is still living.
As children, John and Lena were inseparable, and were often referred to as "the twins." They were members of the same class in grade school for several years, and both attended Hillhouse High School in New Haven. Lena Booth now fondly remembers their long walks to school together. The bond between brother and sister persisted to the end. In speaking of her early memories, Miss Booth describes what was, without doubt, the prevailing characteristic of Judge Booth's whole life. "He was," she recalls, "a sweet boy. Everyone liked him, and he liked everybody." Those who knew him in later years can easily recognize, in his genuine, selfless human warmth, the trait which so early made its impression on his sister.
Upon completion of a two-year commercial high school course, Judge Booth worked for two years to support himself and finance his further education. He entered Yale Law School at twenty-one and was graduated in the class of 1897, which had among its members many men who have distinguished themselves at the bar and on the bench. Close upon graduation from law school, he married Grace Beers of Orange. The two children of this union are now deceased. A son died early in life. The daughter, Marjorie, died in 1943, leaving two daughters.
At the outset of Judge Booth's legal career, the hard years of the beginning, which then as now called for industry, integrity, ability and a pleasing personality, progress was not spectacular but steady. That he succeeded and firmly made his way is shown by his appointment as city attorney of New Haven in 1911 and as a judge of the City Court in 1913. He was on the City Court bench four years and soon showed the judicial fitness that so distinctly marked him throughout the remainder of his life. The business of the City Court was, to him, of the utmost importance. His concern was to supply kindly, helpful treatment in the incipient stages of the tragedies of humanity, to meet the responsibility of wielding a potent influence upon the future of the many persons who came before him, and to avoid the danger of stirring resentment in those whose helplessness might make them safe objects for verbal lashings. His philosophy of judicial conduct, developed in the City Court, characterized his conduct during his tenure in the higher courts. This philosophy is well exemplified in the counsel given by him in later years to a newly appointed judge of the Superior Court: "Remember always the poor devil before you has plenty of trouble already and cannot defend himself against a scourging from the bench. You can much more justly fix his sentence if you have held your tongue."
In 1917 he was named the first public defender for New Haven County but did not accept the position. He was appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas for New Haven County in 1920 and continued in that position until his appointment as a judge of the Superior Court in 1927. He served on the Superior Court until 1943, when he retired because of the constitutional limitation as to age. During these years, he remained the same modest, studious, careful, affable and courageous person he had always been. The possession of power did not change him. As his sister has said, his indignation, whether in private or public life, could be very real, but its only outward sign was the flash of his expressive eyes. He would never permit any feelings of slight or of friendship, or the recognition of possible hostility in others, to influence his action. This strict impartiality was maintained not only in matters which might he the subject of appeal but also throughout the broad field of judicial discretion which, under our system of jurisprudence, lies largely beyond the reach of appellate review.
His dedication, his restraint and his sense of justice produced remarkably worthy results. Appeals from his decisions were few in number and seldom resulted in reversal. One of the best testimonials to his judicial qualities is found in the words of a layman, given at a session of the Superior Court in Bridgeport on November 10, 1933. On that occasion a member of the jury then finishing its tour of duty remarked as follows: "Your Honor, the jury has asked me to express a few words of felicitation to you personally in view of our happy experience with you in this court during the last two months. I think we can say very conscientiously that you personally have impressed us. We recognize your grace and grit, your poise and character, and your activity and aggressiveness . . . . We have been impressed with your mental balance, with your sense of the dignity of the law, . . . of the ... needs of humanity, the reality of the problems of life, of the suffering of people who are hurt . . . . And in view of all of this we go away with a high respect for the court, with a real, honest appreciation of the place of law in society, with the feeling that lawyers and judges and juries can really serve humanity in the interest of home, of personal safety, and of the development of human life."
As a boy, Judge Booth had been a member of the Christ Church and of its choir. In mature life he had a fine baritone voice, and often sang for the pleasure he could give groups of his friends or as a member of such organizations as the Gounod Club and the Masonic Lodge. His second wife, a musician of distinction, was Lenna Mallory, to whom he was married in 1918. Her tastes closely paralleled his. They were both devoted to outdoor activities, particularly golf, and both enjoyed fine music and literature.
Judge Booth was for many years active in Masonic organizations. At his death he was the oldest living past master of Wooster Lodge No. 79, A.F. & A.M., and a member of the New Haven Commandery, Knights Templar, of the Franklin Chapter, R.A.M., of the Lafayette Consistory of Bridgeport, and of the Pyramid Temple, A.A.O.N.M.S. He was a member of the Graduates Club, the New Haven Country Club and the New Haven Grays.
Although he had no formal church connection in later life, his close friends knew that he had an abiding faith in the great tenets of Christianity. He prayed often, but his petitions were more likely to be for his suffering friends than for himself.
Seven years ago Judge Booth became gravely ill, and his physicians doubted that he could survive more than a few weeks. This emergency, as well as his sudden loss of sight, was met by Mrs. Booth with rare courage. Her devotion made it possible for him to live during the remaining years in comparative comfort and the fellowship of his friends.
After his retirement, Judge Booth continued, so far as his health permitted, to serve the bench, the bar and the public. In addition to his work as a state referee, he made himself available to fellow judges and lawyers. He kept up with the development of the law by having recent decisions read to him. He came to his courthouse office almost every day. Many went there to consult him or simply to visit with a man of great heart and wide experience. So it was almost until the end. For a while he was missed at the courthouse, and then it became known that he would come no more. And thus ended one of those quiet, devoted lives which only in retrospect assume their true proportions.[footer.htm]