Scott names Judge Karen Russell Carroll to Vt. Supreme Court

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday revealed his pick to be the next justice on Vermont’s top court.
Scott named Judge Karen Russell Carroll to fill the seat on the state Supreme Court that will be vacated by Justice John Dooley at the end of this month. Carroll will be appointed April 1.
Carroll has had a lengthy career in Vermont, as both a prosecutor and on the bench — including presiding over an unusual case in which a sharply divided state Supreme Court later overturned the conviction because of her conduct.
A Vermont native, Carroll has been a Superior Court judge since 2000, presiding over divisions in Windham, Windsor and Bennington counties since then. She was the first presiding judge in Vermont’s only DUI Treatment Court, which is in Windsor County.
Before she joined the bench, she worked in the attorney general’s office and as a deputy state’s attorney.
In a statement, Scott said he takes the responsibility of appointing a new Supreme Court justice “very seriously.”
“Among a pool of very strong and capable candidates, Judge Carroll distinguished herself based on her depth of experience, character, integrity and – most importantly – understanding and application of the law,” Scott said.
At a news conference Thursday, Scott said “a lot of attributes” led him to select Carroll from a pool of eight candidates.
He said he did not weigh the fact that she was initially appointed a judge by Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, nor did he consider her politics.
“There was no litmus test as to whether you’re Republican or Democrat,” Scott said. “It was more about the talent and your competency.”
“I’m honored by Gov. Scott’s confidence in me, and I’m really looking forward to serving the state in this role,” Carroll said.
She said she had thought about being a judge since she was in law school and began practicing as an attorney. She later began thinking about joining the state’s high court once she was on the bench.
If, as expected, Carroll is confirmed by the Senate and replaces Dooley, she will join Justices Marilyn Skoglund and Beth Robinson in forming a majority female Vermont Supreme Court. The two other members are Chief Justice Paul Reiber and Justice Harold Eaton Jr.
Scott named his pick to the court several months after a Vermont Supreme Court case confirmed it was his responsibility to select Dooley’s successor.
Dooley in September announced his intention to retire when his current term expires at the end of March. Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, began the process of selecting Dooley’s replacement but was blocked by a challenge brought by House and Senate Republican leaders.
The high court in 2010 weighed a matter involving Carroll when a criminal case in Windham County she presided over was appealed over questions about her role.
According to court documents, a 2008 trial case was delayed due to the defendant’s health. When his health appeared poised to further delay proceedings the next day, there was some thought that he may have been malingering. Questions arose over Carroll’s decision to reach out to a pharmacist and to guards involved in the transportation of the defendant for information.
The trial proceeded, and the defendant, Randall J. Gokey, was convicted. The decision was appealed to the high court, questioning Carroll’s involvement in determining whether Gokey was well enough to stand trial.
Three of the five justices determined that Carroll violated rules of evidence “with significant detriment to the court’s appearance of impartiality.”
“It is entirely possible that defendant was malingering to delay his ultimate conviction, but that does not give a judge the license to reach beyond the proceedings to try to prove her suspicions,” the majority stated in its decision granting Gokey a new trial.
However, the case elicited a vigorous dissent from two members of the court — Chief Justice Paul Reiber and Brian Burgess. They wrote that the majority’s decision “shoehorns” Carroll’s actions into a rule violation.
“In my view, any errors that occurred here were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Reiber wrote.
Defender General Matt Valerio, who appealed the lower court decision to the Supreme Court, said the issues raised in the case are “a little unusual.” However, he said, he sees the case as just one small part of Carroll’s broader record.
Everyone can have “a bad day,” he said. “I think Gokey was a bad day for her.”
Valerio said Carroll is a “very pragmatic” and “common-sense” judge.
“I don’t see Gokey as something that’s going to disqualify her from being a good justice,” Valerio said.
Asked about the case, Carroll said she respects the justices’ decision.
“It’s a learning experience,” Carroll said. “In the midst of a really important and heated trial we have to make decisions extremely quickly without a lot of time to be able to research things.”
“Sometimes we make the right decisions and sometimes we don’t,” she said.
Jaye Pershing Johnson, Scott’s legal counsel, was familiar with the case. She said it is common for trial court judges’ decisions to be appealed, and she pointed out that the decision split the court.
Johnson said Carroll’s ethics record was strong and there were no complaints to the Judicial Conduct Board about her.
She “really got through the selection process with flying colors,” Johnson said.

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