William Sessions reflects on pivotal role of the judiciary
MIDDLEBURY — “Be respectful and tolerant. Never raise your voice. Never be judgmental. Treat people kindly.”
That’s the approach to sentencing that U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III has taken throughout his 20 years on the federal bench. It’s a role the longtime Cornwall resident, of course, takes very seriously.
“When you’re a judge, you’re constantly reflecting upon your own bias,” he told an audience of more than 100 at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury late last month. “You’re the sole representative of the criminal justice process, and you want people to feel that they were heard and treated well.”
Sessions reflected upon his legal career at an event titled “Passing Judgment.” The April 23 affair was the inaugural public lecture presented by Middlebury’s Hawthorne Club in conjunction with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.
Bill Sessions was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from Middlebury College in 1969 with a B.A. in political science. He earned his law degree from George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and interned at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. After a year of active duty in the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Ga., Sessions returned to Vermont to clerk for Judge Hilton Dier Jr. in Addison County District Court. He worked as a public defender in Addison County before entering private practice in 1978. From 1978 until 1995, in addition to his law practice, Sessions was an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School.
After his return to the Green Mountain State, Sessions and his wife, Abby (herself a Middlebury College alumna who was lured out of retirement from a career in pubic education to be principal of the Cornwall elementary school) set up house in Cornwall. They raised three children during their 40 years residence in in the small town. These days, Judge Sessions is a regular fixture at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market, where he and his grandchildren purvey goat cheese from his daughter Hannah’s Blue Ledge Farm.
The turning point in Judge Sessions’s career, and the focus of his talk, came in 1995, when President Bill Clinton nominated him to the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont. Sessions served on the Court for the next 20 years, was the court’s Chief Judge from 2002-2010, and has held senior status there since early 2014.
He said the transition from public defender to sentencing judge was, at times, jarring.
“(As a defender) I was dedicating myself to fighting the system: It’s the establishment that’s imprisoning your clients,” Sessions said. “Now, I was the establishment.”
He recalled sentencing someone to jail for the first time, and thinking, “‘Who is this guy in the robe?’”
When handing down a sentence, Sessions said, he always made an effort to say something positive to the defendant. “I’ve had a person come up and hug me at a farmers’ market, because they remember something I said to their son that made a difference,” he recalled.
He also required young people, especially drug addicts, to write him annual letters describing what they were doing with their lives.
“Some of the letters I get are incredible,” he said.
In addition, Sessions said that his “weightiest responsibility” was “the judge’s responsibility is to protect the public, so that future criminal activity is deterred.” One of the most important indicators of rehabilitative promise, he said, is whether defendants are willing to accept full responsibility for their conduct. During his judicial career, Judge Sessions sentenced over 2,000 people, “and none have come back to bite me yet.”
Sessions’s humane approach to sentencing undoubtedly played a role in his 1999 nomination by President Clinton to serve on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing guidelines for federal courts. Judge Sessions served on the commission from 1999-2010, acting as chairperson from 2009-2010. His “claim to fame,” recalled Sessions, was his successful effort to get Congress to pass a law reducing the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, which had resulted in putting African Americans in jail for longer periods than white American simply because of the type of cocaine they had in their possession.
When asked about the fairness of the justice system, Judge Sessions mused.
“It’s a system of justice of individual people: defendant, defense lawyer, probation officer, judge. It’s a very human system. If I can keep the criminal justice system on those human terms, then I guess I’m less depressed,” he responded.
Sessions published more than 300 opinions he published as a federal judge, and saw it as an integral part of the work.
“Law is an evolving process,” he said. “It arises out of the marketplace of ideas, and it is the responsibility of every federal judge to be part of that marketplace of ideas.”
His first decision, in 1996, was United States v. Griffiths, which challenged mandatory federal sentencing guidelines in the case of a young man who’d been convicted of distributing LSD but had subsequently turned his life around. Judge Sessions granted a reduced sentence based upon “extraordinary rehabilitative efforts.” On his final day as chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Sessions used this case as a basis for changing federal sentencing guidelines to account for human characteristics.
“So this case is now the law of the nation,” he told his Middlebury audience proudly.
In 2002’s Landell v. Sorrell, Judge Sessions upheld Vermont law on campaign contribution limits, but struck down the limits on campaign spending. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where both limits were declared unconstitutional. His 2012 ruling in Vermont Right to Life v. Sorrell, that contribution disclosure requirements do not violate the First Amendment, has been upheld on appeal to higher courts.
Sessions presided over several important environmental cases. In Senville v. Peters (2004), he stayed construction of the proposed Chittenden County Circumferential Highway (“The bulldozers were right there, ready to go, the next morning,” the judge recalled) until the agencies involved complied with federal environmental law. The highway has never been built.
Sessions called Green Mountain Chrysler v. Crombie (2007) “the biggest case I’ve ever had.” In his 350-page opinion, citing global warming and climate change, Sessions upheld Vermont’s adoption of California’s rigorous emissions standards, supporting states’ rights to set standards. A federal judge in California later adopted Sessions’s opinion.
The judge called United States v. Fell, a death penalty case, “the most rigorous and difficult I’ve experienced.” In his ruling, Sessions declared the Federal Death Penalty Act to be unconstitutional, “so I’m forever known as the judge who declared the death penalty unconstitutional,” he joked.
Sessions believes that the most important attribute for a judge is “the ability to listen and empathize. Trial work is about stories.
“When judges no longer want to listen, that’s when accounting should be their business,” he added.
Sessions is still engaged in the law and serves the court as a judge in senior status. But he doesn’t have to go to the courthouse every day. A final ruling in United States v. Fell is still pending, but Sessions has referred the case to another judge.
At 68 years old, he said, “I thought: ‘I’d rather be with my grandkids.’”
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