The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of our former colleague Cassandra Q. Butts. Cassandra was an exceptional lawyer, policy expert, former Deputy White House Counsel, and a dear friend to many in the legal community.
“There are no words to describe the tragic loss of Cassandra Butts,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “Her devotion to civil rights was evident in everything she accomplished, and her passion for public service was an inspiration to all who had the privilege of working with her.”
Cassandra was born in Brooklyn, NY and moved to Durham, NC at the age of nine. She attended the University of North Carolina, earning a B.A. in political science in 1987. While at UNC she participated in anti-apartheid protests. After college, she worked for a year as a researcher with the African News Service before attending Harvard Law School where she met and befriended future president Barack Obama. Butts continued her activism at Harvard, where she joined in protests regarding hiring practices for faculty of color. She received her JD from Harvard in 1991.
In a statement on her passing, the President and First Lady described Cassandra as “always pushing, always doing her part to advance the causes of opportunity, civil rights, development, and democracy. Cassandra was someone who put her hands squarely on that arc of the moral universe, and never stopped doing whatever she could to bend it towards justice.”
After graduation, Butts went to work for Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pennsylvania) as his legislative counsel. In March of 1995, Cassandra joined the Legal Defense Fund as an Assistant Counsel focusing on civil rights policy and litigating voting rights and school desegregation cases in LDF’s D.C. office.
Cassandra left the Legal Defense Fund in September of 1996, to return to Capitol Hill and work for Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri) and for the House Democratic Policy Committee. By 1998 Cassandra provided strategic advice to the Majority Leader on a range of issues, including the 1998 presidential impeachment and legislation relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Under Gephardt, she helped draft the groundbreaking September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001. She also worked on vetting judicial nominees. In 2000 she took a sabbatical to serve as an observer in the Zimbabwean parliamentary elections.
In 2004, Butts was named senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress. She stayed there until 2008, but did take time in late 2004 to help then-rookie Senator Obama hire his staff and organize his office.
During Senator Obama’s presidential run four years later, Butts was among several former classmates who helped with his campaign. After President Obama was elected, she served as general counsel to his transition team and was later brought on as Deputy White House Counsel on issues relating to civil rights, domestic policy, healthcare, and education. She was the first Black woman to hold the position of Deputy White House Counsel. Cassandra advised President Obama on general domestic policy concerns and specialized in matters related to presidential policy, ethical questions, financial disclosures, and legal issues surrounding the President’s decision to sign or veto legislation. She also assisted with the vetting of Supreme Court nominees. In November 2009, Butts was named Senior Advisor in the Office of the Chief Executive Officer at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent government agency that develops recommendations on U.S. foreign aid to developing countries.
Cassandra Butts, Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill,
and the Hon. Robert Wilkins at the White House Rose
Garden announcement of the nomination of Wilkins
and former LDF attorney Nina Pillard to the
D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On February 7, 2014, Cassandra was nominated by President Obama to be United States Ambassador to the Bahamas. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on her nomination on May 13, 2014. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas held up her nomination, and the nomination of several other ambassadors, after the Secret Service leaked information about Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz in late 2015. While awaiting confirmation, she served as Senior Advisor to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and held that position until her death.
Cassandra had a reputation for enjoying fast cars and owned a rare BMW coupe. Survivors include her mother, Mae A. Karim of Durham, NC; her father, Charles Norman Butts of New York City; and a sister, Deidra Abbott of Severna Park, MD.
Read a statement from the President and First Lady.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.