Federal Appeals Court Judge Betty Fletcher, 89, died on Monday, leading hundreds of readers to revisit our profile of Fletcher, published in 2009.
You can read the full profile of Betty Fletcher here.
As Nina Shapiro found, Fletcher was unapologetic about her judgeship, which had a long history of riling conservatives.
Though practically unknown in her hometown outside legal circles, Fletcher is a high-powered icon of liberalism, the likes of whom may never again get the nod for a federal bench. She's a holdout from an unprecedented era of left-wing judicial appointments under President Jimmy Carter, after which moderates became the name of the game, at least for Democrats. For all the controversy over Sonia Sotomayor, with whom Fletcher shares some traits, the recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice is strictly middle-of-the-road compared to Fletcher.
Apart from her political ideology, Fletcher rose through the legal profession at a time when discrimination against hiring women was not only mundane but legal."
Fletcher was a double anomaly in 1956 when she graduated at the top of her class from theUniversity of Washington Law School. Not only was she a woman, but she was, at age 33, the mother of four young children. Unusual as it was for the times, by entering graduate school she was merely taking up the family profession. Her father, John Binns, was a general civil lawyer inTacoma who encouraged her to skip school when he had an interesting case in court. Her husband Robert, a retired University of Washington professor, was a lawyer too. (Later, both her son William and her daughter Susan Fletcher French became lawyers as well.)
She was appointed as a judge during the Carter administration, before old-school liberalism largely lost its national audience.
Fletcher's life was upended by a historical event. In 1978, under the Carter administration, Congress passed a bill that added numerous judgeships to federal courts around the country. For the 9th Circuit, says Arthur Hellman, aUniversity of Pittsburgh law professor who specializes in that court, "that was a remarkable and unique episode...Carter appointed 15 judges in the space of two, two-and-a-half years." No Circuit got as many new judgeships. The influx transformed the court politically. "Before that, the 9th Circuit was a fairly conservative court," Hellman says.
Carter set up nominating commissions in each district to look for potential judges. They were instructed, Hellman says, to "reach out to people who otherwise might not have been considered." They found women, minorities, and liberals--old-school, straight-ahead liberals, not the triangulators of the Clinton years. Fletcher was a natural choice.