Butler, Charles Henry

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Butler, Charles Henry

Charles Henry Butler served as the Supreme Court reporter of decisions from 1902 to 1916.

Butler was born June 18, 1859, in New York City. He was the son of William Allen Butler, a lawyer, and the grandson of benjamin f. butler, U.S. attorney general during the administration of Martin Van Buren. Butler attended Princeton University but left school before graduating. He then studied law in his father's New York office for several years, and often accompanied his father to Washington, D.C., when the elder Butler appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue cases. Butler was admitted to the New York state bar in 1882 and subsequently practiced law in New York City. In 1898, he served as the legal expert for the Fairbanks-Herschell Commission, which was convened to adjust the boundary of Alaska and Canada.

In December 1902, Butler left the Practice of Law to accept an appointment as reporter of decisions for the U.S. Supreme Court, a position created by Congress in 1816. In the early days of the Court, the reporter had been primarily responsible for editing, publishing, and distributing the Court's opinions; beginning in 1874, however, Congress provided money for the government to publish the Court's opinions, and thus by the time Butler became reporter, his role was limited to editorial tasks.

While reporter, Butler edited and published volumes 187 to 241 of the United States Reports, the official publication of the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. During his tenure with the Court, he also was a delegate to the Hague Peace Conference in 1907. He later authored A Century at the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States (1942), a sometimes lighthearted account of the Court's inner workings and his experiences as reporter. In the book, published two years after his death, Butler described his dealings with the justices as "delightful and congenial." He wrote that the work was "very interesting. It was not difficult and did not take all of my time. The salary … afforded me a comfortable income." Butler also described in some detail the various rules and customs of the Court, including the writ of certiorari and the social etiquette of the Court, and shared anecdotes about lawyers who had argued before the Court. With respect to the reporter's position, Butler discussed the process of preparing head-notes, the paragraphs that appear at the beginning of opinions to summarize the major points of law contained in the opinions. During Butler's tenure, the Court made clear that headnotes were not to be construed as part of the opinions and were instead only the expressions of the reporter about the holdings of the Court.

"Citizens of this country are essentially loyal; but they are more loyal to principles than they are to men."
—Charles Butler

Butler eventually found his position to be "somewhat monotonous" and noted that "[t]here was nothing constructive about it so far as my part was concerned." In addition, Butler was frustrated by the anonymity of the post and by frequent misunderstandings about his role and duties; he wrote that he was once introduced as the "Head Stenographer of the United States Supreme Court." As a result, Butler resigned from the Court in October 1916, to return to private practice in Washington, D.C. He also wrote extensively about International Law, including several works on U.S. relations with Spain and Cuba. He died in 1940, at the age of eighty-one.

Further readings

Butler, Charles Henry. 1942. A Century at the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Van Rees Press.

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Cross-references

Law Reports.