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Originally published Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 1:33 PM

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Obituary: Appeals court Judge Betty Fletcher

Longtime federal appeals court judge Betty Fletcher has died at age 89.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Betty Binns Fletcher, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a strong believer in justice for the disadvantaged, died Monday, at age 89.

Just five days earlier she had been on the bench listening to oral arguments, having never really retired from the job to which President Jimmy Carter appointed her in 1979.

"She was one of the embattled liberals on the court, fighting for the little guy, whether it was for immigration or the planet," her son, Paul Fletcher, a Seattle physician, said. "She felt she was fighting a very important battle."

To the end, she was not only working, she was working hard. "She always had a file in her lap and a red pen," he said. Even on vacation, she'd carry a small suitcase of clothes and a heavy briefcase of files.

On the 30th anniversary of her appointment to the court, Bill Gates Sr. and two other notable lawyers, praised Judge Fletcher for her "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."

Born in Tacoma in 1923, to a family of committed New Deal Democrats, she went away to school at Stanford University, getting her bachelor's degree at age 19.

She married Bob Fletcher and together they had four children. Despite the brood — all of whom were under age 12 — she decided to go to law school, getting up early to make breakfast then commuting from Tacoma to the University of Washington to finish her degree. Her energy, friends and family say, was remarkable.

Despite graduating in the top of her class in 1956, she had a tough time getting a job. Back then, her problem was her gender. Finally, she caught the attention of a partner at the Seattle firm now called K&L Gates. She stayed there until 1979, eventually becoming the first woman to make partner at a major Pacific Northwest law firm.

"She was a game changer," attorney Kari Glover, who in 1975 joined the same firm and saw Judge Fletcher as a mentor. "She was tough, demanding. Sometimes she made you uncomfortable with her expectations. But she was also fair."

Judge Fletcher's oldest daughter, Susan French, a semiretired law professor in Los Angeles, said that back then, the atmosphere was downright "hostile" toward women. French recalls an older lawyer making the mistake of calling her mom "honey." Judge Fletcher snapped right back, "Don't you 'honey' me!" French recalled. "She didn't take any guff from anybody."

Rob Mitchell, now a partner at K&L Gates, said when he came to the firm as a summer intern in 1978, the Fletchers, at that point empty-nesters, allowed his wife and him to stay with them. "We were adopted into their family," he said.

Indeed, Judge Fletcher had scores of law clerks over the years whom she considered family, too.

"She had very intense work life and also an intense family life," son Paul said. "When she was at work she talked a lot about her kids and at home she talked a lot about her work."

In the mid-1990s, Judge Fletcher's other son, William, of San Francisco, was nominated to the 9th Circuit by President Clinton. But Sen. Orrin Hatch, of Utah, didn't like the senior Fletcher's liberal ways, according to news reports at the time, so he blocked William Fletcher's appointment.

The process dragged on for more than two years, until, under pressure from Hatch, Judge Fletcher agreed to take senior status, opening the way for her son's appointment.

Judges typically go on senior status when they're getting ready to retire; most of them cut their caseload to 1/4 or 1/2 time.

"It was a very real sacrifice for her," said William Fletcher. For one thing, she lost her seniority, which meant she had to relinquish considerable control.

But Judge Fletcher got back at Hatch. Instead of retiring, she kept a full-time schedule. Right until the end.

Besides daughter Susan, and sons Paul and William, Judge Fletcher is survived by daughter Kathy Fletcher, of Seattle, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her husband, Bob, died last year.

There will be a memorial service at noon on Nov. 10 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Remembrances may be made to the Betty B. and Robert L. Fletcher Scholarship Fund at the University of Washington Law School or InvestEd (formerly the Haas Foundation) on whose board she sat for many years.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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