Shumlin Appoints Chief Lawyer To Supreme Court

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(Host) Governor Peter Shumlin has appointed his chief lawyer to the state Supreme Court.

Shumlin picked Beth Robinson to fill the high court vacancy. Robinson is perhaps best known as an advocate for marriage rights for same-sex couples.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Governor Shumlin said he made his first Supreme Court choice with great care, knowing that the appointment will likely out-last his administration.

(Shumlin) "The great thing about this opportunity is that there is no one I know in Vermont who is more able to carry out justice for Vermonters, to be fair and clear and promote the greatness of this state, than Beth Robinson."

(Dillon) Robinson has worked as the governor’s legal counsel for the past 10 months. Before that she was an attorney in private practice and a leader in the effort to win marriage rights for same-sex Vermonters. In 1997, she was co-counsel in a state Supreme Court case that led to Vermont’s civil union law. In 2009, she led a campaign to convince the legislature to pass same-sex marriage.

Robinson said she will bring a pragmatic approach to the Supreme Court.

(Robinson) "I think there’s a huge difference between my role as an advocate and my role as a judge. And my role as a judge really is first and foremost to uphold the rule of law – which is kind of this concept, it’s an abstraction – but to do it in a way that recognizes the practical effects on real people’s lives."

(Dillon) Although best known as an activist on same-sex marriage, Robinson said she also spent 18 years representing Vermonters in a diverse practice that included family law, employment law and personal injury cases.

Robinson does not have experience as a trial judge. But Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School, says Robinson’s wide-ranging legal practice should serve her well on the bench.

(Hanna) "What most people don’t know about Beth Robinson is that she was at one of the most prestigious firms in the state, Langrock, Sperry and Wool, and that she had a reputation for being among the best lawyers in the state simply as an outstanding legal advocate on a variety of cases."

(Dillon) Robinson can begin serving immediately, but the state Senate needs to confirm her appointment when the Legislature returns this winter. Franklin Senator Randy Brock, a leading Senate Republican, said he’s keeping an open mind on the nomination. He noted that Robinson has extensive experience as a lawyer in Vermont.

(Brock) "I would expect that folks would explore the depth of that experience and whether or not it is sufficiently broad to be effective on the bench. My sense is that people will give the governor a wide berth and a degree of discretion in terms of choosing his appointee."

(Dillon) Robinson said she was first drawn to a career in law because of a book she read as a child.

(Robinson) "I mean this is going to sound really corny. But anybody who has ever read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and has gotten to know Atticus Finch, I think, can understand what will inspire anyone to go into law. And that to me, I think, was the kicker."

(Dillon) Harper Lee’s story of a small town, southern lawyer focused on civil rights and equal justice – the same themes that have echoed in Robinson’s own career.

Robinson said she will wrap up work in the governor’s office over the next few weeks, and expects to be sworn into the high court next month.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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