In Memoriam: William J. Butler ’49

Human rights lawyer William J. Butler ’49, the co-founder of NYU Law’s Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, died on June 7 at the age of 96.

William Butler ’49
William Butler ’49

Following graduation from NYU Law, Butler joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a staff attorney, and on behalf of the ACLU, he successfully argued the landmark 1962 case Engel v. Vitale, in which the US Supreme Court found that the recitation of government-composed prayers in public schools violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. In Kent v. Dulles, his amicus brief helped persuade the Court to hold that the right to travel is protected by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Butler served as chairman of the executive committee of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and as President of the American Association of the International Commission of Jurists. In that capacity, he led missions that investigated and reported on the state of human rights in Iran, the Philippines, Guatemala, Palau, South Africa, and Uruguay, and he was the ICJ’s representative at the United Nations Social Summit in Copenhagen and the Rome Conference that established the International Criminal Court. In 2000, Butler was named as the UN High Commissioner's Special Regional Advisor on Human Rights for North America. In 2001, he helped organize a meeting of scholars and jurists from around the world to produce the Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction, which clarifies the principles for prosecuting serious violations of international law on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

A veteran of World War II, Butler received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1946 before attending NYU Law. In 1945, he married Jane Hays, daughter of Arthur Garfield Hays, general counsel of the ACLU and a leading civil liberties defense lawyer.

After his father-in-law’s death in 1954, Butler joined with ACLU leaders and other friends to create a memorial fund and launch the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program in 1958 at NYU Law. The first of its kind in the United States, the Hays Program awards fellowships to third-year JD students that include the opportunity to work in internships for public interest organizations or to carry out research projects with faculty members. It has trained generations of public interest lawyers to lead in taking on the most challenging civil rights and civil liberties issues of the day.

Posted June 23, 2020