Lycoming County’s women on the bench

For Lycoming County’s women on the bench, it’s not their gender that makes them unique, it’s what they do.

“I just knew I had a job to do and, in my mind … that I had to prove that I’ve earned the right to sit in this chair and to do this job,” said President Judge Nancy Butts, who became the county’s first female judge when she was elected in 1995.

Butts and Judge Joy Reynolds stand out in this county, where about 25 percent of lawyers are women. But anyone who knows their work, or their character, will say it has little to do with their gender.

“I can’t say that I ever felt that, in any way, that was a disadvantage to me,” McCoy said. “I never really saw gender as any big issue.”

McCoy became the county’s family law judge in 2009, breaking ground as the first judge to actively campaign for that position.

Joining the law field in the 1980s, Butts saw even fewer females in court.

“Back then, because there were so few of us, we could stick together, regardless of what side you were on,” Butts said. “But the interesting thing was you were treated differently because you were a woman.”

When Butts started in Lycoming County, women weren’t allowed to wear pants in court.

“It was inappropriate attire,” she said. “You could be sent home if you didn’t have a skirt on.”

Butts’ first January on the bench in 1996 saw an end to that rule, as she wore pants in the courtroom for the first time – primarily because it was too cold to wear a skirt. “I said, ‘I’m wearing pants, and nobody’s going to tell me I can’t.’ ”

The rule went by the wayside because no court official was going to tell a sitting judge what she was allowed to wear, Butts said.

The road to law

Butts didn’t always have aspirations of a judgeship, or even becoming a lawyer. At first, the now Philadelphia Flyers season ticket holder wanted to be a sports broadcaster.

“Everybody that knows me knows how much I love sports,” Butts said. “I was told that girls don’t do that – back then.”

Next it was theatre. Butts gathered majors in psychology, theatre and a minor in German as she worked her way through college, eventually focusing more on the mental health field when she graduated. It wasn’t until she decided to go for a graduate degree that a career in law opened up – primarily, she said – because she didn’t want to take the math courses involved in a master’s of business administration.

“I discovered an aptitude for something I never knew,” Butts said, and she started applying to law schools.

Butts graduated from law school in 1985 and passed the bar. Unable to get into any of the region’s law offices Butts began working for the Friendly’s restaurant franchise, and opened up the first Friendly’s in Florida.

But her true passion was law, and when a position opened up in the public defender’s office in Lycoming County, she jumped at it.

‘Something that guys do’

A simple school report piqued McCoy’s interest in law when she was in sixth grade and had to write about what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I didn’t pick law because I had some burning desire to be in law, but it really bothered me that all the other girls in the class were picking girl roles,” McCoy said. “So I thought, ‘I’m picking something that guys do.’ And it just kind of stuck after that.”

McCoy was born and raised in Lycoming County and began working at a private firm after law school. Garnering experience in family law, she decided to run for the family court judge position in 2009, upon the advice of now retired Judge Dudley Anderson.

“With me, I think the ground I thought I was breaking was (being) the first judge elected who had a background in family law,” she said.

Impactful tenures

Through her nearly 10-year tenure, McCoy started a number of programs including the Williamsport Area High School Attendance Improvement Court; the Lycoming County Canine in the Courts Initiative, which saw the addition of Jedi II as the courthouse facility dog; and a supervised exchange center in the county for separated couples who needed a safe place to transfer guardianship of their children.

“I think I’ve brought a lot of initiatives to the court that have helped across the board,” McCoy said.

Butts also can boast a number of groundbreaking improvements over the years.

After working in the offices of the public defender and the district attorney, serving as a law clerk for the late President Judge Clinton W. Smith and practicing in the private sector, Butts was elected to the judgeship in 1995.

She has been the judge of the county drug court since 1998, aimed at helping offenders struggling with drug addiction. Butts formed the county’s juvenile drug court and the mental health court.

She became the county’s president judge in 2010 and will remain in that position until she retires. Butts is one of 14 female president judges across the state.

Butts was appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to serve on the Criminal Procedural Rules Committee from 2007 to 2014. In her last year on the committee she served as chairwoman.

ANNE REINER
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