The leader of the state’s Human Rights Commission will be joining a private Hinesburg law firm, marking the end of his decades-long career in public service.
Robert Appel, executive director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission, will join Kohn Rath Danon and Appel, LLP, at the end of this month. Appel previously served as the state’s Defender General from 1993 to 2001, defending juveniles and poor Vermonters charged with crimes. He began leading the commission in November 2001.
Appel said a higher income with a private law firm partly enticed him. He also said the frustrations and restraints that sometimes accompany state employment also played a minor role in his decision.
“I have sacrificed some earning potential working for the state,” said Appel, who makes about $81,000 annually, according to the website Vermont Transparency. “From a financial perspective, it’s really challenging to work for substantially less than I think the market would yield me.”
“With 20 years of dealing with state bureaucracy, I reflect sometimes on how much time I spend dealing with it,” continued Appel. “I’ve been a manager in state government for 20 years, and have had my frustrations at times. I’m sure private practice will have its other frustrations.”
Appel said he knows Roger Kohn and Beth Danon, two principals at the firm he’s joining, very well personally, and he has worked with Danon on disability issues in the past. The firm formerly employed Eileen Blackwood, now Burlington’s city attorney. Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, and House Judiciary chair, is a part-time paralegal at the firm.
His most important contribution as head of the commission, he said, was winning a 2006 decision from the Vermont Supreme Court, which recognized prisons as places of public accommodation, and paved the way for better treatment of inmates with psychiatric problems.
“It put some focus on how our jails have become the new residential placement for people with serious psychiatric illness. … Our jails are not equipped to deal with people with serious psychiatric issues,” he said. His efforts also led to an independent study assessing treatment for functionally impaired inmates.
Appel represented a lesbian couple who sued a Lyndonville inn in 2011 for discrimination, won a court order requiring the Hartford Elks Clubs to admit women, and defended a woman’s right to breastfeed in public.
“Civil rights and criminal defense – that’s the overarching theme of my work,” said Appel.
Human Rights Commission Chair Mary Marzec said that Appel would be “sorely missed,” and finding a replacement by the end of January would be challenging.
“The type of work we do is complex. It needs an experienced person, and I’d just refer you to the pay range. I think it’s going to be a challenge to attract qualified individuals,” said Marzec.
Appel notified the commission of his intention to leave at the end of October. If the commission doesn’t find a new executive director by January, Marzec said, it will implement an interim arrangement.
Marzec said Appel’s successor would ideally be an experienced attorney, able to handle legal, educational and outreach work, and work closely with state lawmakers.
“Lawyers come in all sorts of shapes and size, and specialize in different fields,” she said. “But you have to have someone who has a passion for human rights. It’s a trying job.”
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, said Appel’s successor would have to learn fast in order to cope with the position’s numerous responsibilities, but he is confident the state will find someone with a specialty in human rights law.
Gilbert said Appel’s major accomplishment was clarifying the legal concept of discrimination. “Our discrimination laws are not easy for most people to understand quickly. For a number of the lawsuits Robert was involved in, he showed people that entities as disparate as prisons, inns, and a social club are all subject to the same ban against discrimination.”
“Robert dedicated a large chunk of his life to assisting people who are often maligned, marginalized, and forgotten, helping them to seek a measure of justice,” said Gilbert. “He should be honored for that.”
Last month the Human Rights Commission filed suit against the state for pay discrimination based on gender, a case which Appel says is among the most important he’ll leave unfinished. He said, however, he plans to continue working on that case after January.
Here’s a link to the job description for the commission’s executive director, due to be posted on the commission’s website on Wednesday. The pay range for new hire is $65,239 to $81,549.