Changes on the Vermont Supreme Court

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(Host) There was big news about the Vermont Supreme Court recently. Commentator Cheryl Hanna discusses what these changes mean for Vermont.

(Hanna) It came as a shock to much the legal community when Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy last week announced he was leaving the court to pursue other interests. It was a shock in part because most justices, once appointed to the court, spend the rest of their careers there.

Yet, Chief Justice Amestoy spent only seven years on the bench, one of the shortest tenures in Vermont history. Then again, seven years was enough time for Amestoy to earn a permanent place in legal history, not just in Vermont, but world-wide.

He ruled in the Baker decision that same-sex couples were entitled to equal benefits but then required the legislature to work out the details. At the time it was one of the most liberal decision involving gay rights in the world, and yet it was also a model of judicial restraint.

History will be his final judge, but my own sense is that he will be admired for progressive pragmatism by even by those who disagreed with him. I certainly admire Amestoy’s willingness to leave what is arguably the best job a lawyer could hope for to pursue research and writing, and look forward to his future contributions to the law and to Vermont.

But here’s what’s most significant about Amestoy’s departure: Governor Douglas will now be able to fill a second seat on the bench in only his first term in office. In contrast, Governor Dean filled only two seats in 13 years. If you remember, it was just last year that Jim Morse stepped down to head SRS, giving Douglas the chance to appoint Rutland lawyer Paul Reiber to the bench. Now Douglas has a second opportunity to reform the court – one that he has in the past criticized as being too liberal.

With two of Douglas’s appointees on the bench, it’s likely we will see a shift the court’s rulings. And one has to wonder what is going on with the court that two justices in only two years have decided to leave.

Maybe it’s merely coincidence, but the court has issued many split decisions over the last few years, fueling rumors that being a Supreme Court Justice maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It will be incumbent upon the new Chief Justice to foster collegiality among the justices and to bring a renewed sense of enthusiasm and respect to the Vermont judiciary.

I hope Governor Douglas understands just how important the next Chief Justice is to the future of Vermont. The Chief Justice wields enormous power over Vermont law, indeed, over all of us. It’s our individual liberties and our environment that are most at stake.

Douglas will need to put aside political favoritism and ideology, and instead look for a lawyer who has the wisdom and experience to guide the court through this transition.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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