Tribute to Judge Betty Binns Fletcher

Publication year2021
CitationVol. 85 No. 1


Judge William A. Fletcher(fn*)

Thank you very much for the invitation to introduce this wonderful symposium honoring my mother, Judge Betty Binns Fletcher.

Let me begin by thanking my mother. Without her I would not be here. I realize that everyone can, and should, thank their mother for being here-that is, for their very existence. But I mean my thanks not only in that way. I mean also that without her I really would not be here-at this podium, speaking to you as a judge on the Ninth Circuit.

Many of you know the outlines of the story. When President Clinton nominated me to the Ninth Circuit in the spring of 1995, we all thought it would be a wonderful thing to have a mother and a son on the same court. We did not dream that having two members of the same family as judicial colleagues would pose a problem. After all, Morris Arnold, nominated by the first President Bush, had just joined his brother, Richard, as a judge on the Eighth Circuit. And the Hand cousins, Learned and Augustus, had sat together for years on the Second Circuit. Which reminds me of a saying about the Hands. You first have to know that Learned's nickname was "B." The saying went: "Quote 'B'"-that is, Learned-"but follow Gus." If you wonder how that should be applied on the Ninth Circuit, it is "Quote 'B'"-that is, Betty-"and follow her, too."

But the Republicans were not to be easily shamed into doing the right thing. They had celebrated the fact that Morris Arnold had joined his brother on the bench. But now, claiming that an ancient anti-nepotism statute (which predated the Hands on the Second Circuit) forbade family members sitting on the same court, they stalled my nomination. This went on for several years. I said "years." Mom-I hope you don't mind me calling her "Mom"-broke the stalemate. In return for my confirmation, she agreed to take senior status, thereby freeing up her seat for a new appointment to be filled by President Clinton, but with a person acceptable to the Republican then-Senator from Washington.

The Republicans got themselves a deal, but it was not quite as good a deal as they thought. Most judges who take senior status relax a little. They sit part time, they don't do capital cases, they don't sit outside their home city, they don't do screening or motions, or some combination of the above. In other words, they are less than full-time judges. Mom, as I do not need to tell you-and if the Republicans had asked, as someone might have told them-was not likely to follow that path.

Mom has now been on senior status for ten years. For all of those years, she has carried a full load of argued cases, she has done capital cases, she has traveled to hear cases in other cities, and she has done screening and motions. Further, Mom calls cases en banc (and gets her cases called en banc) with some regularity. She would hardly be doing her job if she did not decide cases that get called en banc. And, as if doing her job in the Ninth Circuit is not enough, she has sat by designation on other circuits, taking her sense of justice to other parts of the country that may be in need of same. Finally, and there will be more on this point in a moment, she has had a distinguished record of reversals by the United States Supreme Court.

If I could come close to fooling myself when I was confirmed, I have no illusions now. Left to her own devices, Mom would not have taken senior status ten years ago. She would not have taken senior status last week. She would be an active status judge today, junior only to the Chief Judge and one other judge. I am the beneficiary of her sacrifice, and I want to say here, "Thank you."

As most of you know, Mom is a proud graduate of the University of Washington School of Law. She started law school at Stanford, where she was an undergraduate, during the War. For some of you in the audience, I mean the Second World War. Stanford's law school had emptied out as its young men went off to war. So it invited undergraduates, including women, to take classes. Mom's father, himself a lawyer, loved to tell the story of his Betty coming home for Christmas, getting off the train in Tacoma, saying "Daddy, I got an A in Torts." I don't know if this is a true story. But I do know that he loved to tell it.

Mom and Dad were married early in the war. Dad flew antisubmarine blimps out of Lakehurst, New Jersey, so they were together for the duration. They had two children, my sister Susan and me, before the war ended. They had two more, my sister Kathy and my brother Paul, after they returned to the Northwest. With four children at home and nothing else to do, Mom decided to go back to law school. Her parents rented out their house and moved in with us. Dad and Granddad went to work every morning. Grandmom stayed home and took care of us kids. And Mom made the long commute to Seattle every day from Lakewood, south of Tacoma, on old (even then it was old) Highway 99.

Mom graduated number one in her class and could not find a job. Finally, Charles Horowitz of the old Preston firm (now, after many name changes, K and L Gates) took a chance on her. He knew she would be a good lawyer. The chance he took was that he could persuade his partners, and his clients, that she would be. Some of you in the audience know Mom from her days in practice. You can testify that it did not take long for everybody to know that she would be, and soon was, a superb lawyer. I remember Bill Dwyer, later a federal judge himself, speaking at Mom's swearing in as a judge on the Ninth Circuit. He recounted a case they had worked on together through most of the night. They were all exhausted. Mom, who had been working in another room...

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