Courts & Corrections

Gay marriage activist named to Vermont Supreme Court

Beth Robinson
Peter Shumlin has appointed Counsel to the Governor Beth Robinson to the Supreme Court of Vermont. VTD/Anne Galloway

Beth Robinson, a Vermont lawyer who served as co-counsel in the 1999 landmark Baker v. Vermont case that led to adoption of the civil union law for gay couples, and later spearheaded passage of the state’s gay marriage bill, has been nominated to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, named Robinson to the state’s highest court on Tuesday. The 46-year-old lawyer will be the youngest judge on the court. She replaces Justice Denise Johnson who is retiring.

“Beth has extraordinary integrity; she is one of the most decent, fair, hardworking, bright people in this great state, and I can’t tell you how privileged I am to nominate her to the Supreme Court,” Shumlin said. “There is no one that I know of 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. I say that having interviewed many candidates and having been floored by the quality of the candidates that were sent to me by the nominating judiciary board. All I can tell you is, it was a tough decision, but it’s a real honor to present to you the next justice of the Supreme Court.”

Robinson most recently served as general counsel to the governor. She will leave that post in November after 10 months on the job. Shumlin acknowledged her popularity on the Fifth Floor and pointed to administration staffers who crowded into the conference room outside his offices and enthusiastically applauded after the announcement.

Robinson’s acceptance speech was characteristically modest. “I’m really humbled by the confidence Gov. Shumlin has placed in me, and I hope I can live up to it,” she said. “I look forward to serving in the judiciary, and I hope the high praise the governor has given me is true.”

Almost a year ago, Robinson left the prestigious law firm of Langrock Sperry and Wool in Middlebury to take the post of chief legal counsel to the governor.

“This is the second time in a year I’ve stood in a room like this to talk about leaving a job I absolutely love in order to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Robinson said. “Working with this governor, with this administration, has been incredibly rewarding.”

“Thank you twice for giving me two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” she quipped. Shumlin grinned as he retorted: “Well, there won’t be third.”

Robinson, a native of Indiana, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1986 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1989. She clerked for a federal judge in Washington, D.C., right out of law school and then went to work for Langrock Sperry and Wool for 18 years. She was drawn to the legal profession as a junior high school student after she read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Robinson said identified with Atticus Finch, the lawyer in the novel who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

In the mid-1990s, Robinson became involved in the civil rights movement for gays and lesbians. She became involved in the Vermont Freedom to Marry Taskforce on top of her law practice.

“What the whole experience taught me…we talk a lot about the separation of powers as a fundamental principle, but I also experienced firsthand the complete interdependence of our separate branches and the importance of involving all of them in the important conversations we have about fundamental constitutional rights,” Robinson said.

Robinson said she’s proud of her work as a gay rights activist, but she said she would hate for “that to obscure the entirety of my professional life.” In her full-time legal practice, she was an advocate for Vermonters who are going through divorces, family difficulties, employment problems or injuries.

“I see the Supreme Court as the place where the rubber meets the road, where the concepts that we call law intersect with the lives of real people, and I think it’s a tremendous responsibility to fit those two together and to do it in a way that it’s fair and that’s consistent with the rule of law and I take that very seriously,” Robinson said.

Correction: We originally reported that Robinson is 41 years old and from Indianapolis, IN. She is 46 and from Indiana.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Betsy Olson

    This is great news about her nomination! But I’m wondering about her age. The article states that she’s 41 years old? And she graduated college in 1986? Usually that would make her at least 47 years old, right?

    • Thanks for the correction, Betsy.

      • Doug Hoffer

        the year of graduation does not necessarily tell a person’s age; as Betsy said, “usually” that would make her 47

        lots of people (myself included) graduated college much later than our age cohort; why not check her bio?

        • Her bio on LSW doesn’t say, nor does the press info from the governor’s office. Dave Gram of the AP says 46. I have 41 written down in my notes.

  • Sheryl Rapée-Adams

    Wonderful news! Having volunteered and later worked with Beth, I can attest to her principled professionalism and commitment to her work, as well as being a delight to work with. Thank you, Governor Shumlin, for appointing a stellar Justice.
    Editor’s note: Sheryl Rapee-Adams is the chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force.

  • Katherine Clark

    Perfect poetic justice that Robinson takes the seat of the justice who cast the dissenting vote in Baker. Denise Johnson thought civil unions didn’t go far enough. She wanted the decision to provide for same-sex marriage.

  • Beth Robinson is a national hero. Her influence can be seen not just in the marriage equality movement in Vermont, but in the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the coming repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the throwing open of doors to more equality, not less. Those who focus on her politics miss the key qualities about Beth. She is really smart. She works really hard. And she cares about people. She will make a great justice.

  • Paul Donovan

    Great person, great attorney, great choice.