Newest justice on the Vermont Supreme Court

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas recently appointed Paul Reiber to replace Jim Morse on the Vermont Supreme Court. Commentator Cheryl Hanna shares her thoughts on what this might mean for Vermont’s legal landscape.

(Hanna) After nine months, twelve candidates, and endless speculation, Governor Douglas finally appointed Rutland lawyer Paul Reiber to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Although Reiber has an excellent reputation, he isn’t the most high profile attorney in the state. Nor has he had argued much before the court itself. And he’s never been a judge in the lower courts. Thus, many were a bit surprised when Douglas appointed someone who doesn’t necessarily have the traditional background of a Supreme Court Justice.

Douglas claims his choice wasn’t politically motivated, but every appointment to the court is political, which is why Reiber’s appointment should be no surprise. Douglas has criticized the court for what he sees as judicial activism, especially when it decided the Brigham decision, which resulted in Act 60, and more recently, when it granted gay and lesbian Vermonters equal rights, which resulted in the Civil Unions bill. Also, many see the court as being hostile to private industry.

So Douglas took this rare chance to make some changes.

Reiber has spent the better part his career representing businesses and insurance companies. Douglas no doubt hopes that his appointee will be sympathetic to the interests of private enterprise part of his overall plan to make Vermont a more business-friendly place. Furthermore, Reiber comes from the same corporate law firm as does Peter Hall, President Bush’s appointee to serve as the U.S. Attorney for Vermont. Given Reiber’s professional roots, it’s also likely he shares the Republican viewpoint that judges should be conservative when it comes to interpreting the law.

That said, Reiber’s appointment isn’t likely to significantly change the court – not yet anyway. Rather than dissent out of principle, Reiber will soon find that the most effective judges work to build consensus. If he does so, the court could become more moderate,

But then again, it’s really hard to predict how Reiber will vote. U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Soutter is a perfect example. When he was appointed to the bench by the first President Bush, it was assumed that he would help build a conservative majority. Yet, Soutter now routinely votes with the court’s liberals, in part because he’s no longer beholden to the political process that got him appointed in the first place.

I wish soon-to-be Justice Reiber the best of luck in finding his own judicial voice. He shouldn’t pay any attention to what the governor hopes he’ll do, or for that matter, what commentators have to say about him. The best jurists are guided by a keen intellect, a strong moral core, and a love of the law, with history as their ultimate judge.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

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

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