Judge Betty Binns Fletcher, one of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals most liberal members, died Monday at the age of 89.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Fletcher to the appeals court in 1979. She is known for expanding the rights of those facing job and race discrimination, as well as discrimination based on sexual orientation. She also issued opinions on environmental law, water rights, Indian law and Internet obscenity.
While in private practice in Seattle from 1956 to 1979 as a partner at Preston Gates & Ellis, now known as K&L Gates, she counted among her clients former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
She famously came out on top in a battle with conservative Republicans who opposed the nomination of her son, William Fletcher, as a judge on the same 9th Circuit.
Her son was nominated to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1995 but Republicans cited an ancient anti-nepotism statute that forbade family members from sitting on the same court.
Ironically, Republicans had cheered the appointment by President George Bush of conservative Judge Morris Arnold to join his brother Richard as a judge on the 8th Circuit. They were not so happy with William, a UC Berkeley law school professor, joining his liberal mother on the court.
The stalemate ran for months until Judge Fletcher broke it by offering a deal.
She agreed to take senior status, a form of early retirement that would open her seat to a new appointment. It also allows judges to work at a reduced caseload, another inducement to the conservatives.
The Republicans agreed but “they didn’t get quite as good a deal as they thought,” Judge William Fletcher said in a 2010 Washington Law Review account.
Most judges who take senior status only hear cases part-time and don’t hear any capital cases or travel much beyond their home city.
Betty Fletcher was different. She set the date for her senior status to coincide with her son’s confirmation to the court. She then continued to keep a full load of cases, including death penalty appeals, for another decade.
She also traveled to other circuits and sat by special designation as a visiting judge hearing cases all over the country.
Judge Fletcher’s grandmotherly looks and high-pitched voice often fooled lawyers into thinking she was a soft touch during oral arguments. Then she would hit them with pointed questions that drove whopping holes in their arguments. She wrote over 700 published opinions during her 33-year tenure on the court.
In 2008, Fletcher wrote the decision blocking the Navy from conducting exercises using sonar equipment that caused damage to whales. It was later reversed 5-4 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
She also wrote in the death penalty case of Thomas Thompson in California, that grave questions existed regarding his potential innocence of any capital offense, in part due to the prosecutor arguing inconsistent theories of who killed the victim in two separate trials. David Leitch, a friend of Thompson’s and the victim’s ex-husband, was the only one with a real motive to kill. Both men were somehow involved in her death, according to the law review account.
But the prosecutor argued in separate trials that each man was the actual killer.
Fletcher wrote that the prosecutor acted improperly and Thompson’s lawyer had been ineffective counsel. But the U.S. Supreme Court again overturned the decision by 5-4 and Thompson was executed.
Fletcher received her law degree from the University of Washington School of Law, finished first in her class in 1956. She received an undergraduate degree from Stanford University in 1942 at the age of 19.
Her son William Fletcher joined her on the appeals court in 1998.