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Butler’s investiture is ‘historical event’


Gov. Jim Doyle applauds the swearing-in of Louis B. Butler, Wisconsin’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice. The investiture ceremony took place Aug. 25 in front of a standing-room-only group in the Assembly Chamber at the State Capitol. Doyle appointed Butler to the position one week earlier.

Photo by Tony Anderson

Justice Louis B. Butler Jr. was sworn in last week as the first African American to sit on the state’s highest court.

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson captured the mood at the investiture when she observed, “This is an historic event. The court and the state have been in existence since 1848. In 156 years, to the best of our knowledge, no minority person has sat on this court. Better late than never.”

Abrahamson administered the oath to Butler in the state Assembly chamber, which was filled to capacity. Every seat on the Assembly floor was filled with family and friends, as well as elected and appointed officials. People lined up along the walls and filled the gallery to witness the swearing-in.

“I am well aware of the role that I play as Wisconsin’s first African American Supreme Court justice,” Butler said after he’d been sworn-in. Recalling some of his experiences on the municipal and circuit court bench, he said, “I will never forget those young people who had never seen a black judge before. We can never again allow generations of our youth to believe that there is no future for them. They have to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They have to know that if they work hard in school, they can succeed as adults.”

Butler, 52, said his parents instilled in him the idea that hard work leads to success.

He recalled, “I learned from them the lessons we need to teach our young — set your goals high and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something…”

Some of the other people in Butler’s life did not provide that same encouragement. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he noted that “discrimination and racism were all around. Our neighborhood was surrounded by gangs. Opportunities were not readily available to many of us.”

His high school guidance counselor showed a decided lack of confidence in Butler when the counselor indicated that his desire to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison was no more real than a dream.

In fact, Butler graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton. But his dream was realized when he attended the University of Wisconsin Law School.

During the investiture, Gov. Jim Doyle and others expressed a great deal more confidence in the former municipal and circuit court judge.

Butler speaks to minority students

Immediately following his investiture ceremony, Justice Louis B. Butler Jr. visited with a group of nearly 70 minority students at his alma matter.

The University of Wisconsin Law School graduate took time out between his investiture at the State Capitol and a reception in Milwaukee to offer some words of support and inspiration to new law students of color who were going through a day of orientation. The group was part of the Legal Educational Opportunities (LEO) Program, which Butler participated in when he was a law student.

Responding to a question, Butler acknowledged the debt he owed to the people who had come before him and laid the foundation for him to attend law school.

Building on that foundation means taking steps to ensure that programs remain in place to help the disadvantaged.

He said, “You, as LEO students, have a responsibility to go out and do your best as attorneys, to represent your clients to the best of your ability. … If you do that, then you pave the way for other students behind you. We have to keep these doors open. We have to make sure programs like LEO run in perpetuity.”

The LEO program was established in 1967 to provide an academic and social network for minority students. According to material about the program, its goals include:

  • Promoting diversity within the legal profession, the Law School and the broader community;

  • Effectively equipping minority attorneys with the legal skills to serve their communities;

  • Actively recruiting students from groups that have been historically disadvantaged in the United States; and

  • Providing a strong academic and social network for LEO students.

Butler warned the first-year students about the importance of remaining focused. He also observed that the law professors would demand a lot of them.

“If they are easy on you, that’s hard on your clients later,” Butler said. “You have to know your stuff. You have to be able to do research. You have to be able to write. You have to be prepared.

“When you walk into the courtroom, you want to be the one who knows more than anyone else about the case. You want to know more than the judge. You want to know more than the attorney on the other side. You want to know more than the justices on the Supreme Court when you go and argue a case, so that when a justice throws a question at you, you’ve got 15 answers ready for that question.”

– Tony Anderson

“Judge Butler comes to the court with the finest credentials and the highest commitment to public service,” Doyle said. “From his days as a public defender, Judge Butler has always believed that all citizens, regardless of the size of their bank account or the color of their skin, have a fundamental right to fair and equal treatment under the law.”

Doyle praised the work of the Judicial Selection Committee, which forwarded three finalists from the list of “outstanding applicants.”

“I was determined to find someone whose qualifications were equal to the challenge,” Doyle said. “That person is Louis Butler.”

“Today marks an important moment in the long history of the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” the governor continued. “I believe that our justice system only works when it works for all of us. To do that, it must reflect the great diversity and the boundless optimism of our people.”

Former Justice William Bablitch served as master of ceremonies for the investiture. Bablitch observed that Doyle, by appointing Butler, “has done a great service to this state.”

“He has appointed not just a man who will bring diversity to the court, but a man who will bring great intellect, compassion and an unquenchable thirst for justice,” Bablitch said.

When the court sits down to decide issues of statewide importance, he recalled, each justice brings his or her unique experiences and the wisdom gained from those experiences.

“But something has been missing over the years,” Bablitch said. “With all respect to the court and intending no offense … justice is too important to leave only to seven upper middle-class white people.”

He acknowledged that members of the court have striven to be sensitive and to understand, but none could impart the reality of being an ethnic or racial minority. They have not experienced being pulled over for ‘driving while black,’ insurance redlining, the challenges of raising kids in a high-crime area, raising kids in an area with limited educational opportunities, or where lack of financial resources resulted in a denial of benefits that members of the court all took for granted.

“Gov. James Doyle has taken that most important first step in filling that void with this outstanding appointment,” Bablitch said. “Louis Butler will not bring to the table all of those experiences, but it is safe to assume he will bring a very different perspective.”

Given the country’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education this year, Abrahamson indicated the appointment was well-timed. She congratulated Doyle on his “timely and excellent choice from an outstanding group of candidates.”

Butler, who was chosen to succeed Diane Sykes on the high court, thanked the governor and praised the way he approaches appointments.

“His selection of appointees in the judiciary and the cabinet reflect his strong belief that if you keep the doors of opportunity open to all, you don’t have to worry about diversity,” Butler said. “There are good, competent people from all walks of life who are just itching to serve.

“His willingness and his ability to recognize quality without regard to race sets him apart from others and ensures his place as one of the truly great leaders in Wisconsin history.”

Butler told the group that he was pleased to be a part of the court and that he was proud to be joining the six other justices on the court.

“I am aware that I am one of seven members of a collegial body,” he said. “I promise to work hard. I will work with the other members of the court to achieve justice, to faithfully interpret and apply the law.”

Tony Anderson can be reached by email.

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