Jim Ellis on Betty Binns Fletcher

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 1/04/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22884
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Among his many achievements as a civic activist, Seattle attorney Jim Ellis (1921-2019) led the campaign to clean up Lake Washington, pushed for development of the Washington State Convention Center, and founded the Mountains to Sound Greeway Trust. In this excerpt from his memoirs, Ellis writes about former law partner and United States Court of Appeals Justice Betty Binns Fletcher (1923-2012), who, Ellis writes, "distinguished herself as one of our nation’s leading jurists on conservation issues, writing decisions that protect the mountains, forests, whales, wildlife, and waters of the Pacific Northwest."

Legal Giant

The following remarks were presented by Jim Ellis as an introduction to Betty Fletcher at meeting of lawyers in 2009:

The Pacific Northwest has long benefited from strong women leaders. Examples include the founding Denny sisters; Princess Angeline, who stood her ground on the shores of Elliott Bay; Seattle’s first woman mayor, Bertha Landes; and, more recently, the Bullitt sisters. Now is the time to recognize another leader in the pantheon of women who have helped to build our community: Judge Betty Binns Fletcher.

In 1941, a group traversed the 100-mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier making history by being the first all-women group to complete the hike. The Wonderland Trail is a strenuous hike, with more vertical elevation gain than an ascent to the mountain peak. Judge Betty Binns Fletcher was a member of that long-ago hiking group, and she never stopped breaking new ground. With strength, vision, courage, and leadership, Judge Fletcher has made a strong imprint on our community. 

When she graduated first in her class from the University of Washington School of Law in 1956, the city’s prestigious law firms would not hire women. Preston Thorgrimson Horowitz Starin & Ellis, a predecessor of K&L Gates, "took a risk." Betty Fletcher became the firm's first female partner and the firm’s name was later changed to Preston Thorgrimson Ellis Holman & Fletcher. In her practice, she embraced every challenge, demonstrating through brilliance and hard work that there was no limit to what a female lawyer can do. She was a role model to many who aspired to achieve excellence in their profession. At the same time, Betty and her husband Bob, a law school professor, raised four remarkable children.

Thirty years ago [1979], President Carter appointed Betty Fletcher to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He recently described that appointment as a lasting legacy, reflecting her "profound and abiding commitment to human rights and to environmental quality."

Whether advising clients, judging cases, or volunteering in the community over the past half century, Betty Fletcher has distinguished herself as a citizen concerned not only with the rule of law but also with the rights of individuals and the well‑being of the planet. As a federal judge she has authored pivotal opinions on issues of discrimination, immigration, capital punishment, and the rights of Native Americans. She has spoken out to uphold the abiding values of our region: tolerance, respect for human and natural diversity, equal rights, openness, and civil discourse.

She has also distinguished herself as one of our nation’s leading jurists on conservation issues, writing decisions that protect the mountains, forests, whales, wildlife, and waters of the Pacific Northwest. She continues to be a pioneer in addressing emerging environmental challenges such as climate change. She recently authored an opinion striking down inadequate fuel efficiency rules, to which Congress responded by increasing efficiency standards.

Judge Fletcher has devoted much of her time to professional and community organizations. As with other areas of her life, this service is marked by many "firsts" too numerous to list. Her contributions go well beyond the law to the fabric of our community. She has pushed the dialogue on racial issues. She has long believed that diversity enriches the community rather than weakens it. She celebrates and honors every individual. As a judge, she epitomizes human rights leadership across the range of human endeavor.

Often glass ceilings fail to shatter. Instead, a crack may form that allows entrance to one remarkable individual. The glass truly shatters only when others progress as well. Judge Fletcher has always made sure that this would be the case. Not only did she reach behind herself to pull up the next (and the next and the next) generation, but also she has continued to serve as an active mentor and role model for both men and women. She also finds time to nurture her grandchildren and the children of her 100 former law clerks.

President Obama recently wrote Judge Fletcher a letter of appreciation, observing: "As a judge, you have displayed an unwavering commitment to justice under law. You have blended mastery of legal doctrine with empathy for the individuals subject to the law, especially the most vulnerable in our society."

Our colleague Betty Fletcher has always displayed the pioneering spirit to speak up for what is right, to challenge perceptions about what can be achieved, and to break new ground for the sake of building a more humane community. The Pacific Northwest is much better for it.

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