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Butler was born to Patrick and Mary Ann Butler, Catholic immigrants from County Wicklow, Ireland. (The pair met in Galena, Illinois, after having left the same part of Ireland because of the Great Famine.) Soon, the couple settled in Sciota, then Waterford, Dakota County, Minnesota. Their son Pierce was the sixth of nine children born in a log cabin; all but his sister would live to adulthood.
He was elected as county attorney in Ramsey County in 1892, and re-elected in 1894. Butler joined the law firm of How & Eller in 1896, which became How & Butler after the death of Homer C. Eller the following year. He accepted an offer to practice in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he took care of railroad-related litigation for James J. Hill. He was highly successful in representing railroads.
In 1905 he returned to private practice and rejoined Jared How. He had also served as a lawyer for the company owned by his five brothers. In 1908, Butler was elected President of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
From 1912 to 1922, he worked in railroad law in Canada, alternately representing the shareholders of railroad companies and the Canadian government; he produced favorable results for both. When he was nominated for the United States Supreme Court in 1922, Butler was in the process of winning approximately $12,000,000 for the Toronto Street Railway shareholders.
He wrote the majority opinion (6-3) in United States v. Schwimmer, in which the Hungarian immigrant's application for citizenship was denied because of her candid refusal to take an oath to "take up arms" for her adopted country.
He sided with the majority in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, holding unconstitutional an Oregon state law which prohibited parents from sending their children to private or religious schools.
Pierce Butler with his son, Kevin in 1927
In the 1927 decision for Buck v. Bell, Butler was the only Justice who dissented from the 8-1 ruling and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s opinion holding that the forced sterilization of an allegedly "feeble-minded" woman in Virginia was constitutional. Holmes believed that Butler's religion influenced his thinking in Buck, remarking that "Butler knows this is good law, I wonder whether he will have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion." Although Butler dissented in both Buck and Palko, he did not write a dissenting opinion in either case; the practice of a Justice's noting a dissent without opinion was much more common then than it would be in the later 20th and early 21st centuries.
On November 15, 1939, Butler went into the hospital for "a minor ailment" but died in the early morning hours of November 16. He died in Washington, D.C., at the age of 73 while still on the court. He was the last serving Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Harding. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul.
Justice Butler is one of 14 Catholic Justices – of 113 total Justices in the history of the Supreme Court.[A] 40.5 cubic feet (1.15 m3) of his and his family's collected papers are with the Minnesota Historical Society. Other papers are collected elsewhere.
Abraham, Henry J. (1999). Justices, Presidents, and Senators: A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments from Washington to Clinton (Revised ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN978-0-8476-9604-8.