Betty Fletcher, liberal U.S. appeals judge, dies at 89

SEATTLE — Judge Betty Binns Fletcher, considered a liberal stalwart of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for decades, has died at age 89, a spokesman for the court said Tuesday.

Fletcher passed away Monday night. The cause was not immediately known, 9th Circuit spokesman David Madden said.

Appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, she was known for rulings upholding affirmative action, allowing claims of workplace discrimination to proceed, overturning death penalty cases and protecting the environment. She was one of the first female partners at a major law firm in the country, and the second woman appointed to the 9th Circuit.

“She had experienced discrimination herself in her life, and her perspective included looking out for the downtrodden, the little person — but always within the framework of the law,” Seattle U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said.

Fletcher kept hearing cases until the end, he added, and she remained sharp even as her body failed her.

Many of Fletcher’s favorite opinions were overturned by an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court, her son, 9th Circuit Judge William A. Fletcher, wrote in a 2010 tribute. He called it her “distinguished record of reversals.”

“Mom has tried not only to do justice in the case before her, but also to shape the law to do justice in the cases that will come after,” he wrote.

She was also known for getting back at Republicans in the U.S. Senate who held up her son’s appointment to the 9th Circuit in the 1990s.

In 1996, Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch insisted that because of an obscure, 19th century anti-nepotism law, Betty Fletcher needed to take senior, or semi-retired, status before her son could join the court. That would free up Fletcher’s seat to be filled with an appointee acceptable to then Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington.

Fletcher agreed — but instead of slowing down as a semi-retired judge, she maintained a full caseload.

“Throughout her life people underestimated her,” said Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan. “The thought that taking senior status would mute her voice or her ideas was a huge miscalculation.”

Durkan added: “When I was growing up there were not very many women lawyers in the community. She was one of the first and most accomplished, and a real inspiration for me.”

Fletcher was born in 1923 in Tacoma, where her father was a prominent lawyer. When she was a young girl, he would take her to his office on weekends and sometimes let her skip school to attend his trials. In an interview for an American Bar Association oral history project, she recalled that she always knew she would be a lawyer.

She began attending Stanford University at age 16, and during World War II, when many men had gone off to fight, the law school there began letting female students take law classes to keep the professors busy. Fletcher graduated from the University of Washington’s law school in 1956, and immediately ran into trouble: Law firms weren’t hiring women.

“Prejudice came down on me like a ton of bricks because … the professor who was supposed to get interviews for graduating students never got one for me,” she recalled. “So I pounded the pavement with my resume and would just go in cold and say I wanted to see the hiring partner. The receptionist always thought some secretary was getting sacked, so I would get in and get the interview.”

She was hired at the Seattle firm Preston, Thorgrimson and Horowitz, which eventually became K &L Gates. She later served as the first female president of the King County Bar Association. Among her clients was U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

Chief Seattle U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said Fletcher, with a lovely family and accomplished children, was a role model for any woman wanting to practice law.

“She was always willing to share with other women and talk about her life of being a mom and a judge and a lawyer,” Pechman said.

Stanford University law professor Norman W. Spaulding, a former law clerk for Fletcher, said that what always struck him was the care she took with each case. For every case, she ordered up the full record from the lower court, rather than relying on the briefs and excerpts provided by the lawyers — a diligence that is far from universal, Spaulding noted.

“You might find a judge who disagreed with her, but no one ever questioned her care with the facts and the law of a case,” he said.

He added: “She just really believed the justice system ought to work as well for the powerless as it does for the powerful.”

Fletcher’s husband of 69 years, University of Washington law professor Robert Fletcher, died late last year. She is survived by her four children.

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