Patricia Collins Andretta Dwinnell Butler, who died last week at the age of 101, was born in 1907, during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. Horse and buggies were giving way to streetcars and automobiles, women were pressing for the vote in Europe, and a record number of immigrants poured into the United States.
Born in New York, she was the daughter of parents who emigrated from Newfoundland. Butler’s father was a journalist who covered Marconi’s historic wireless transmission between Cornwall in England and Newfoundland. The couple moved to Atlanta when Pat was in her early teens and she attended Sacred Heart High School. The only child of a father who harbored an unrealized ambition to be an attorney and a mother who was, herself, a businesswoman, Butler was encouraged in her education, and in her father’s dream for her to attend law school and to prepare to be independent. At the same time, she was shaped by her mother’s insistence that she not “be too independent—don’t be too masculine.”
Following her graduation from Agnes Scott in 1928, Butler enrolled in Emory School of Law. Among her classmates were Harlee Branch (31L), who became the President and Chairman of the Board of Georgia Power Company and George Lawson (31L), former General Counsel of Coca-Cola Company. Butler was in school at the same time that the inimitable Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones (29L) studied at Emory Law. According to Butler, she found law school awkward at first. “Discussions were foreign to me. Then it just happened. I made friends, and it got better. My dad let me have a car, and I started giving the guys rides in Atlanta – then I started studying with them.” Her academic experience must have been a success as at graduation Butler was ranked second in her class of 30.
While her academic experience at Emory Law might have been successful, finding a job practicing law was much more difficult. Butler was successful in finding a volunteer position working at Atlanta Legal Aid Society and at research projects on a grant from the American Law Institute while she looked for paying employment. She had a great champion in her former law professor, Smythe Gambrell, who took it upon himself to try to find a job for this smart female graduate. He introduced her to many firms. Butler remembers interviewing with a senior partner at a law firm who told Smythe Gambrell that, as much as he would like to, “we couldn’t possibly meet our clients and tell them that we were spending money out of the law firm to pay a woman law school graduate.” She continued working at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, gaining experience and confidence in her legal abilities. The head of the Society was impressed with Butler and went to the Board of Directors to ask for $40 per month to help pay for gasoline for her car and her lunches. The chairman of the Board was so appalled at the idea of paying a woman that he stood up, put on his hat, and walked out—never to return.
Meanwhile, Smythe Gambrell often was in Washington as attorney for the bus company and several other big clients. One of his friends was Ashley Sellers, then with the Department of Justice. One Christmas, while in Canada, Butler received a message to stop in Washington on her way home for an interview with the Department of Justice. After waiting patiently for two days, she interviewed with Assistant Attorney General Harold M. Stephens in the Antitrust Division and about a month later got a letter asking her to report to Washington and to the department.
Butler was hired to put the antitrust library together in the Justice Department’s new building. For years, Butler had few female colleagues. Her work in organizing the cases, legislation and other documents coming out of the federal government during the New Deal led to the establishment of the field of law now known as administrative law. Butler was the founding secretary of the American Bar Association’s section on administrative law and founding editor of what is now the Federal Register. Because of research she had done during the New Deal era on “alien enemies” in World War I, Butler was asked to help with research leading up to World War II. Most of this research was highly confidential. Butler worked on drafts of war proclamations that went into effect after she was called to the White House following Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt involved her in research relating to his “court-packing” plan. While she disagreed with the plan, she enjoyed working with the Roosevelts and especially admired Eleanor Roosevelt.
Butler went on to work on the legal staff in the Office of the Attorney General, where she remained and worked for every attorney general from the Roosevelt administration through the Nixon era, including Robert F. Kennedy and Elliot Richardson, the two attorneys general for whom she felt the most respect and fondness. She worked at the Department of Justice for nearly four decades, serving under the administrations of six presidents and 16 attorneys general.
Pat Butler met her first husband the first week she moved to Washington. Sal Andretta, also new to the Department of Justice, later became its chief budget officer. Years later, after World War II, the two became better acquainted and, in 1948, the couple wed, despite her hesitations about combining a high powered career with marriage. “I had thought when I started my career that I probably never would be married. I didn’t particularly want to be, “says Butler. “But then that man came along and changed my mind.”
In 1949, Pat argued an immigration case, Johnson v. Shaughnessy, before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Office of the Solicitor. Butler took over the case unexpectedly when the man who was to try the case was called to Europe. Despite having only ten days to prepare, she prevailed before the court, even undergoing a vigorous exchange with Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had recently joined the court.
Shortly thereafter, Butler was the first woman appointed to the quasi-judicial body of five members on the Board of Immigration Appeals, where she served for approximately two years and then returned to the Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department where she worked for twenty-five more years until retirement. During that time, she saw great upheavals including the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of the women’s movement. When asked about the role of women in the legal profession, Butler talked about the fact that the Second World War made a big difference for women, as — by necessity — women came into their own. Former Attorney General Janet Reno has called Butler a “pioneer among women at the Department of Justice,” but, as Butler said, “I think women were bound to come into their own no matter what. Nothing could stop them.”
During her tenure in the Department of Justice, Butler became friends with Chief Justice Warren Berger, then an assistant attorney general, and his wife Elvera Burger. Following his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Berger invited Butler to tea in 1974 and asked her to help him start the Supreme Court Historical Society. Butler put together the first by-laws, and today the society has its own building and staff, a roster of more than 6,400 members, and a nearly $3 million budget devoted to the collection and preservation of the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. She advocated acquiring historic artifacts such as the only filing that Abraham Lincoln made before the Supreme Court and items such as portraits and busts of former justices. She served on the board of trustees and executive committee of that organization since its founding.
After marrying again and retiring to LaJolla, California, she continued to remain active and engaged in community life until her death. She was a member of the Scripps Hospital Advisory Board, a Board member at the Neurosciences Institute in LaJolla, a member of the Centers for Disease Control Advisory Board, and a donor to Agnes Scott and Emory Law. As recently as 2008, when she was 100, she spoke to students at Emory about her life and career and — through the Patricia Dwinnell Butler Scholarship program she created — future students will be the beneficiary of her pioneering spirit for generations to come.