MIDDLEBURY — Kate Gridley’s South Street art studio continues to draw visits from a “Who’s Who” in the world of politics, law and academia.
And it has nothing to do with this being an election year.
The Middlebury artist recently drew acclaim for immortalizing former Vermont Gov. James Douglas on canvas, a portrait that was hung in the Statehouse.
Gridley is now applying the final strokes to her latest portrait, that of U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III — who, like Douglas, is an Addison County resident. Douglas hails from Middlebury, while Sessions resides in Cornwall.
“It is very exciting,” said Gridley, who on Monday had only to touch up the grey locks loosely hanging across the forehead of a seated, smiling Sessions attired in his black judicial robes and a cobalt blue tie, before calling the portrait complete.
The near photo-quality portrait of Sessions will soon hang in the Thurgood Marshall Judiciary Building in Washington, D.C., in recognition of Sessions’ former chairmanship of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. It measures 30 by 36 inches and is contained in a wooden frame made by Martha Lapham of Shoreham.
Judge Sessions is a Middlebury College graduate (1969) and former U.S. Army officer who had a distinguished career as a Middlebury-based attorney and adjunct professor at the Vermont Law School until his successful nomination to the federal court by President Bill Clinton in 1995.
President Clinton then nominated Sessions to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1999. Sessions served on the commission continuously until December 2010, with his final 15 months spent as chairman. The U.S. Sentencing Commission is an independent agency in the judicial branch of government that, among other things:
• Establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including guidelines to be consulted regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes.
• Advises and assists Congress and the executive branch in developing effective and efficient crime policy.
• Collects, analyzes, researches and distributes a wide array of information on federal crime and sentencing issues, while serving as an information resource for Congress, the executive branch, the courts, criminal justice practitioners, the academic community and the public.
A portrait is made of each chair of the commission to honor his or her contributions.
And Sessions’ contributions were many during what was virtually a second full-time job that frequently took him to the nation’s capital.
Those contributions, Sessions recalled during a Tuesday interview with the Addison Independent, included a successful effort to level sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
“The crack cocaine penalties were extraordinarily severe in comparison to powder cocaine penalties,” Sessions said. “Crack cocaine offenses, by and large, were committed by African Americans, to the extent that 90 percent of all criminal defendants charged with crack cocaine penalties were African American. Powder cocaine penalties were related to non-African Americans — primarily to both Hispanic Americans and Caucasian Americans. The disparity in the way they were treated was generally realized to be unfair, but it took a long time to reduce the penalties for crack cocaine offenses.”
It took 11 years, but the commission successfully put more balance in sentencing guidelines in the two cocaine categories during Sessions’ time as chairman.
Also, Sessions lobbied for there to be a greater role in sentencing guidelines for “human characteristics of a defendant,” such as the accused’s mental and/or physical condition, and military history. Prior to this adjustment, sentencing was based less on defendant characteristics than with the nature of the crime.
“I felt it was important to include offender characteristics — both positive and negative — and I think we were successful in changing some guidelines to reflect that concern,” he said.
Sessions was very pleased to have served on the commission.
“In a very politicized world, to lead an organization that dealt with a politically sensitive topic like sentencing for federal crimes was extraordinarily challenging and extraordinarily rewarding,” Sessions said. “All of the commissioners when I served as chair, and even before that, had a wonderful working relationship. We came from different political backgrounds and we worked by consensus and worked well together. It was extraordinarily rewarding.”
PORTRAYING A JUDGE
Meanwhile, Sessions is clearly impressed with Gridley’s artistic work, which he has viewed during the past several months during occasional sittings under her watchful eye. It helped that Sessions’ and Gridley’s families have been friends for many years, giving the artist additional insights into subtle character traits that could translate onto canvas. For example, Gridley thought it fitting to keep a small tuft of Sessions’ hair slightly out of place on his forehead, imparting a sense of his rural roots and wry sense of humor to contrast with the very serious, cerebral nature of his job on the bench.
“It was important to me that this portrait show both his gravitas and his humanity,” Gridley said.
Gridley succeeded, according to Sessions.
“It is wonderful,” he said, calling Gridley “the finest artist I have even known.”
“It is a difficult process to look at yourself exposed on canvass, but she has certainly captured my smile… She is a fabulous artist,” he said.
Gridley was pleased that Sessions asked her to paint the portrait, an assignment she has been balancing with other tasks for the past year. She began the assignment by taking some photos of the judge sitting in his chambers in Burlington. She and Sessions discussed how the portrait should be composed and at one point considered featuring the judge holding a green leather binder containing the sentencing guidelines published during his tenure. Ultimately, they chose a more simple scene featuring Sessions seated in a chair in his judicial garb with his legs crossed and hands clasped on his lap. But Gridley added a green background, symbolic of Sessions’ home state of Vermont.
The judge was able to work in three or four sittings during the creation of the portrait. On one occasion, when Sessions was out of town, Gridley had her husband, John, slip on the judicial robes to substitute.
The Sessions portrait will be unveiled at the Thurgood Marshall Judiciary Building on Oct. 15. Sessions and Gridley will both be there. At that point, Sessions’ portrait sessions with Gridley will be over.
“The poor guy has been under so much scrutiny for a year,” Gridley quipped.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]