Remembering William J. Butler

Last month, UC Law and the world lost a great advocate for human rights. On June 7, 2020, William J. Butler passed away.

“Bill’s great achievement through the Urban Morgan Institute is that there is a squadron of Morgan graduates ‘who don’t like to see the little guy get kicked around!'” — Prof. Bert Lockwood, Director, Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights, College of Law.[1]

Who was the man responsible for creating the Urban Morgan Institute graduates who stand up for the little guy? William J. Butler was well known in the field of human rights. He started his career as Staff Counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union where he worked on two landmark civil liberties cases before the United States Supreme Court. In Kent v. Dulles, 357 US 116 (1958), Rockwell Kent was refused a passport to visit England and attend a meeting of an organization known as the “World Council of Peace” in Helsinki, Finland due to his Communist Party affiliations. The other Petitioner, Dr. Walter Briehl, was also denied a passport for the same reason. In the ACLU’s Amicus Brief*, Mr. Butler argued that the Secretary of State’s denial of the passport violated the right of free movement and the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision agreed. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), was a prayer in public schools case. Mr. Butler argued that the prayer violated the Establishment Clause and the Supreme Court in a 6-1 decision agreed. You can read/listen to Mr. Butler’s oral argument at the Oyez website. Mr. Butler also represented faculty from Sarah Lawrence University in Senator William E. Jenner’s Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee investigations.[2]

Mr. Butler was best known for his work with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). He served as Chairman of the Executive Committee and as founder and President of the American Association of the International Commission of Jurists. On behalf of the ICJ, he led numerous human rights missions and represented the ICJ at the Rome Conference establishing the International Criminal Court. Mr. Butler also served as an ICJ Observer at the Pinochet hearings before the House of Lords and represented the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the trial of Kurdish leader Ocalan in Turkey. In 2000, Mr. Butler was named as the High Commissioner’s Special Regional Advisor on Human Rights for North America. In 2001, he convened a worldwide meeting of experts which resulted in the issuance of The Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction.[3]

Mr. Butler was behind the creation of the first endowed institute at an American law school devoted to international human rights law, The Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights, here at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Urban Morgan students serve as editors for the world’s leading human rights academic journal: Human Rights Quarterly. Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, Human Rights Quarterly is overseen by Distinguished Service Professor Bert Lockwood, who serves as editor in chief as well as director of the Institute.[4]

Mr. Butler’s papers reside in the Robert S. Marx Law Library archives. The Papers of William J. Butler include speeches, letters, congressional testimony and other personal and professional writings that document the human rights contributions and other public service of William J. Butler. Also included in this collection are: proceedings of annual meetings of representatives of sovereign nations on human rights and foreign policy held from 1977 to 1999; executive documents of the International Commission of Jurists and the American Association of the International Commission of Jurists; reports of human rights missions to numerous countries; materials generated during international human rights trials observed by William Butler; and more.[5]


  1. Rachel Richardson, UC Remembers Human Rights Defender William J. Butler, UC News (June 15, 2020).
  2. Robert S. Marx Law Library, Biographical Sketch of William J. Butler.
  3. Id.
  4. Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights, University of Cincinnati College of Law.
  5. Robert S. Marx Law Library, Papers of William J. Butler.

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