U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Betty Binns Fletcher passed away on October 22. Her departure marks the end of an era, one she personally helped to usher in.
Judge Fletcher would have been 90 years of age on March 29. Seldom will we encounter someone whose entire life was so filled with so much for so long. With her passing, the Ninth Circuit lost one of its most important and most prolific judges, and the King County Bar Association lost one of its most enduring friends and supporters.
Judge Fletcher grew up in Tacoma before attending Stanford University at the age of 16. Upon graduating at age 19, she promptly enrolled as a first-year student at Stanford Law School when the number of admitted women spiked up due to the number of male law students serving in World War II.
Early in the war, she married her beloved, Robert Fletcher, whose professional career was devoted to teaching law at the University of Washington. Upon returning to the Pacific Northwest after Bob's military service, and while raising four young children, Betty chose to resume her law school career in 1953 when not a single Fletcher child had yet reached the teenage years.
Graduating first in her class at the University of Washington School of Law, Judge Fletcher was unable to find a job as a lawyer at most Seattle law firms, although she was told she could be considered for clerical and secretarial positions. The firm that later would become Preston Thorgrimson, Ellis, Holman & Fletcher, however, did not make that mistake, and Judge Fletcher practiced there from 1956 until she went on the bench 23 years later.
Judge Fletcher was one of the first woman partners of any major law firm in the United States and the very first woman partner of any major Seattle law firm. (The Preston firm is now K&L Gates, one of the largest firms in the world.) According to her former colleague Rob Mitchell of K&L Gates, Judge Fletcher enjoyed tremendous success in private practice because she "embraced every challenge, demonstrating through brilliance and indefatigable effort that there was no limit to what a woman lawyer could do."
Judge Fletcher was the first woman to lead the King County Bar Association, serving as president in 1972–73, and she was the first woman on the Washington State Bar Association Board of Governors. She was the second woman to be appointed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, nominated by President Jimmy Carter in July 1979 and confirmed by the Senate just 74 days later. She wrote more than 700 opinions during her 33 years on the court, where her unique energy and enthusiasm to deliver justice were eclipsed only by the quality and integrity of her judging.
While Judge Fletcher's professional accomplishments were legion, her private life and her devotion to family were equally distinguished and just as important to her, if not more so. As her son Paul Fletcher told The Seattle Times, "She had a very intense work life and an equally intense family life. She talked about her kids at work and about her work at home."
Family never yielded to career, even though Judge Fletcher operated in the top echelon of her profession every year of her long life. It was my privilege to first meet Judge Fletcher not in the courtroom, but in daycare, where she would occasionally visit her infant grandson, Josh.
I find it fitting that almost 28 years later, my last encounter with Judge Fletcher was personal rather than professional, in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she had willed herself to travel long distances to officiate at Josh's wedding in the company of her entire family, just two weeks before her death. No one and nothing would convince her to do otherwise and she presided over the ceremonies, as usual, magnificently.