Morse, Douglas and the best job in the state

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(Host) Governor Douglas recently announced a round of administrative appointments, and Commentator Cheryl Hanna reflects on what some of those changes might mean.

(Hanna) I remember my former dean, Max Kempner, once saying that all lawyers secretly hope to be appointed the Supreme Court – and he was right. It is arguably one of the best jobs for a lawyer, which is why many of us reacted with a sense of shock when Vermont Supreme Court Justice James Morse announced he was resigning from the bench to become commissioner of the Department of Social & Rehabilitative Services.

This is not like leaving the bench to become ambassador of France. The commissioner of SRS is arguably the worst job in the state. The department has met with scandal over the past few years and has been subject to criticism on its inability to properly serve the abused and neglected children of Vermont.

Morse was appointed to the bench in 1988 by Governor Madeline Kunin. He’s had a life-long commitment to issues affecting children. While on the bench, he created and chaired the Permanency Planning Implementation Committee. It’s now part of a nationwide effort to move foster children through the court system more quickly.

Having been a judge for 22 years, and the state public defender before that, Morse is in a unique position to understand the day-to-day realities of kids who find themselves in the juvenile justice system. I consider Morse to be one of the best justices in Vermont history, but while his leaving will be a loss to the bench, I think we’ll gain a most thoughtful and caring public servant.

And the appointment really says something positive about Governor Douglas. Justice Morris and, for example, Jeff Wennberg, who will head the Department of Environmental Conservation, couldn’t be further apart politically, which leads me to believe the governor is most interested who can get the job done.

But the most interesting twist of all is that the appointment gives Douglas a rare opportunity to name a Supreme Court justice early in his term. The other four Supreme Court judges are relatively young, and barring a surprise resignation such as Morse’s, it is unlikely there will be any other vacancies created during the governor’s tenure. And Douglas’s appointment could begin to change the nature of the court.

All of the current sitting justices had careers in the public sector before coming to the bench, and all see the Vermont Constitution as being subject to an interpretation that takes into account the political and social landscape. It will be telling to see if Douglas appoints someone from the private sector, or if he selects someone whose judicial philosophy radically differs from the rest of the bench.

Or maybe, as he did when he appointed Justice Morse to SRS, Governor Douglas will place his highest premium on intellectually vitality and a thorough understanding of the many demands of judging. In the meantime, believe me, there will be plenty of lawyers waiting by the phone hoping it’s the governor calling.

This is Cheryl Hanna

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

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