The Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas deals with everything from felonies to family affairs, working with small children to senior citizens. The president judge of this important county institution is a very special woman, Judge Nancy Butts.
Born and raised in Levittown, PA, Nancy Butts went to Lehigh University to study law, but also had a strong interest in international affairs, even minoring in German language. After graduation, she got a job as an au pair in the Bavaria region of Germany, which she hoped to last several years, but circumstances cut it short to three months. Returning to the States, she was then admitted to the California Western School of Law because they had a program in International law. Afterward, she did an internship in San Diego working in the area of immigration.
For the sake of family, however, she looked for work back east, and from an ad her father saw in the Philadelphia Inquirer, she applied and was hired as an Assistant Public Defender with the Lycoming County Public Defender’s Office. Nancy Butts was then able to serve as Law Clerk for Judge Clinton Wilcox, a man who became her mentor. He taught his young law clerk to think creatively, to always be encouraging others, and to look at issues from every perspective. She never forgot those lessons from this wise judge.
Nancy Butts then worked in private practice for a short time before becoming Assistant District Attorney with the Lycoming County District Attorney’s Office. It was in 1994 that she decided to take the biggest leap in her life — run for the office of Common Pleas Judge. Not only had there never been a female judge in Lycoming County, there had never been one in the entire northern tier of Pennsylvania. This rural county proved to be quite progressive, and elected her to the position in 1995, and has since re-elected her in 2005 and 2015.
Coming on the bench in 1995, Judge Nancy Butts was ready to challenge the male dominance among the judges. It showed in subtle ways, such as the mandate that females were not allowed to wear pants in court, as pants were deemed ‘improper court attire.’ Judge Butts quickly made it clear that when it was cold, she was going to wear pants if she wanted to!
It was not just the judges but also the prejudice of the lawyers that would come to present their cases that Judge Butts had to deal with. There was a stigma among the attorneys that women were not strong and had to earn their stripes, so to speak, to be taken seriously. But Nancy Butts had always been interested in criminal law, but she also knew her civil law as well. The attorneys that came before her bench found that she was not to be intimidated — she knew the law! Yet, she was also fair, and some even admitted privately to her, “I would not want to go in front of anyone else.”
This grit eventually resulted in her election as President Judge in 2010. In many ways, Judge Nancy Butts has revolutionized the court system in Lycoming County. When the Drug Court was established in 1998, she was appointed to it and has been continually presiding over it ever since. In 2004 she worked to establish the Juvenile Drug Court. Judge Anderson began the DUI Court in 2006, but in 2008 this also came under Judge Butts, as did the Mental Health Court in 2008-09 and the just recently established Veterans Court.
The purpose of these various courts is not just to treat the symptom but also work at curing the disease. Judge Butts does not see it as “soft” to get offenders into a program that gets them out of their spiraling descent. She wants to see people succeeding and thus reduce recidivism. This improves the quality of life for the entire county.
This is what keeps Judge Butts going. Every day, she seeks to make the community a better place to live in than it was the day before. One case, in particular, stood out to her. Some years ago, she had a young man who stood before her for substance abuse issues, but whom she also knew had the potential to go to law school. She challenged the young man to finish his studies and sit for the BAR exam. He did so, knowing that passing the BAR would not mean a license without waivers due to his criminal offenses. Judge Butts worked hard on behalf of the young man, and today he is a practicing attorney.
Lycoming County’s first-ever female judge could be summed up as a woman with guts, grit, and a good heart. A true role model not just for women, but for anyone interested in serving in the legal profession.