From bench to beach

Berrien County Trial Court Judge John Donahue announced Wednesday he will retire next year after more than 13 years on the bench.

ST. JOSEPH — At this time next year, if all goes as planned, Berrien County Trial Court Judge John M. Donahue will be getting ready to walk the beaches of Costa Rica.

Donahue, who has been on the bench in Berrien County for 13 years, announced Wednesday he will hang up his black robe for the final time on June 29, 2018.

“I desire to retire while in good health,” said Donahue, 63. He noted that at retirement, he will be 64 1/2.

“I look forward to walking the beaches of Costa Rica in the winter and the beaches here in St. Joseph in the summer and fall,” the judge said in an interview.

He said he has truly enjoyed working with the litigants, lawyers and court staff in Berrien County, but “These decisions week in and week out wear on you,” Donahue said. “I’ve enjoyed all my colleagues, but working with (retired judges) John Dewane and Al Butzbaugh was a highlight.”

Donahue was elected a 2nd Circuit Court judge on Nov. 2, 2004, and was re-elected in 2010 and 2016. His term expires in January 2023. Once Donahue retires, Gov. Rick Snyder will appoint a new judge to serve the rest of the term.

Donahue earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University in 1982 and his juris doctor degree from the University of Notre Dame Law School in 1985.

He began his career as a law clerk for Berrien’s 2nd Circuit Court and in that capacity served Judges Zoe Burkholz, Julian Hughes, Ronald Taylor, Casper Grathwohl and John Hammond.

Prior to his judicial career, he worked as an insurance defense litigation and municipal law attorney for the firm Straub, Seamen & Allen P.C.

When he took the bench in January 2005, he started in the court’s Family Division and served six years there. When then-Chief Judge Al Butzbaugh left the Civil Division to return to the Criminal Division, he assigned Donahue to take his place in the Civil Division, where he has served the last seven years. 

One day on the bench he says he’ll never forget is July 11, 2016, the day Joe Zangaro and Ron Kienzle were shot and killed by a jail inmate during an escape attempt.

“Joe Zangaro was my bailiff on July 11 and we were in session in court when we heard the shots. Our eyes met for two full seconds, then he took off, never to return,” Donahue recalls. “I think about him every single day.”

Zangaro and Kienzle were shot and killed when they ran to help from separate courtrooms after an inmate wrestled a gun away from Sheriff’s Deputy James Atterberry Jr. in a hallway behind the courtrooms. 

Contact:, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa