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Butler gets the nod


Hon. Louis B. Butler Jr.

Gov. Jim Doyle continued to show his commitment to a diverse judicial system last week by appointing Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Louis B. Butler Jr. to the state Supreme Court. Butler is the first African American to sit on the state’s highest court.

As he announced the appointment last Wednesday, Doyle highlighted the strengths Butler, 52, brings to the position.

“I was determined to go out and find the very best, most qualified person for the job,” Doyle said. “And I found that person in Louis Butler.”

“I have known Judge Butler for many years. He is exceptionally qualified and highly intelligent. He is known for his fairness, his sense of justice, and his lifelong commitment to public service.”

During an interview, Butler acknowledged the historic nature of this appointment.

“I appreciate Gov. Doyle’s confidence,” Butler said, adding. “I understand the responsibility of being first African American on the court.”

Butler noted that the diversity he brings to the court goes beyond his race. He said he brings the perspective of someone who has grown up in an urban setting.

“I also have a diverse professional background as an appellate lawyer, a trial lawyer, and someone who represented poor people,” Butler observed. “I have represented people who committed crimes. It’s important to bring different perspectives to the court.”

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, in a released statement, observed that she has known Butler for 25 years from his appearances before the high court as an assistant public defender, through his time on both the Milwaukee Municipal and Circuit Court benches.

“Judge Butler’s lengthy and distinguished career in the law will serve the people of Wisconsin exceptionally well,” Abrahamson stated. “On behalf of the entire Supreme Court, I welcome Judge Butler as a member of the Supreme Court, and I extend thanks and congratulations to Governor Doyle for his timely — and history making — appointment.”

One of Butler’s colleagues on the Milwaukee Court, Judge Kitty K. Brennan, commented on the incoming justice’s strengths during an interview. Brennan is deputy chief judge for the First Judicial District.

“His personal qualifications are fantastic,” Brennan said. “His superb scholarship makes him an excellent pick.”

During the past year, Doyle has taken several steps to diversify the state’s judicial composition. Last year, he appointed Paul B. Higginbotham as the first African American to sit on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. In November, he appointed Glenn H. Yamahiro as the first Asian American to sit on the circuit court bench.

“I am not unmindful of the historic significance of this appointment,” Doyle said. “We took a step forward as a state 28 years ago when Chief Justice Abrahamson became the first woman to sit on the court, and we take another step forward today. Wisconsin is becoming an increasingly diverse state, and our justice system ought to reflect that diversity. Our highest court should embody our highest ideals and our best hopes.”

“I understand the responsibility of being the first African American on the court,” Butler said. “I hope to live up to the expectations that have been placed on me.”

State Bar President Michelle Behnke said she was pleased by the governor’s focus on Butler’s qualifications during his speech. Behnke echoed the importance of having someone on the bench with Butler’s litigation and appellate experience, as well as the perspective he brings from having served in the Public Defender’s Office.

Behnke acknowledged the importance of the diversity firsts taking place at the different levels of the judicial system; however, she looks forward to a time when there’s no longer a need to count them.

She sees having a racially diverse court at all levels as an inspiration to young people of color who are preparing to practice law. As a side benefit, that will help the state’s law schools attract students.

“It will show that Wisconsin has a whole range of career options for diverse students,” Behnke said. “It’s an exciting chapter for Wisconsin.”

One of the other things Butler brings to the court is his experience in the Milwaukee court system. He will be the only member of the court from the state’s largest city.
Brennan said she was one of many people who felt it was important to have someone from the state’s largest circuit court system on the Supreme Court. She noted the high court’s responsibility for establishing rules and policies affecting the state courts.

“In that role, Judge Butler will be an excellent addition to the court,” Brennan said.

Milwaukee Bar Association President Margaret Wrenn Hickey agreed with the importance of having someone from the Milwaukee Courts on the state Supreme Court. During an interview, she said, Butler will be a wonderful addition to that court.

Hickey also described Butler’s appointment as the first African American on the high court as a “great moment of progress in Wisconsin.”

“It’s an historic moment,&#14
8; Hickey said. “One we, as a state, should be proud of. Our court is going to reflect our population.”

Butler will fill the vacancy created by Diane S. Sykes’ appointment to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Ironically, Butler ran against Sykes in the 2000 Supreme Court race. Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Sykes to the high court in 1999.

Butler indicated that things have moved quickly since the announcement last Wednesday. The following day marked his final day on the Milwaukee trial court. He’s also begun the process of hiring staff.

Although he is excited about joining the high court, Butler said, there has not been much time for it to sink in.

“It’s kind of a whirlwind tour,” he admitted. “There’s been no time to sit back and reflect.”

Butler’s swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for 10:30 this morning in the Assembly chambers, and a reception will be held at 5 p.m. at the War Memorial in Milwaukee. The court begins its next session Sept. 1 and hears its first round of oral arguments on Sept. 9.

Tony Anderson can be reached by email.

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