Judge Sessions to explain judicial thinking on Thursday

MIDDLEBURY — U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III will hold court in Middlebury on Thursday, April 13 — not to rule on any cases, but to give Addison County residents a sense of what goes into a jurist’s decision-making process on matters related to free speech.
The longtime Cornwall resident and Middlebury College alum’s talk, titled “Constitutional Law: The First Amendment, a Judicial Perspective,” will begin at 7 p.m. at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society meeting hall at 2 Duane Court.
Vermont’s senior federal judge is no stranger to educating the masses on legal matters, and he took some time on April 6 to preview his upcoming appearance.
“I think it’s really important that our community engage in open discussion about First Amendment civil liberties,” Sessions said during a brief interview at the college’s McCardell Bicentennial Hall, where he teaches a course on American Constitutional law.
“This is an educational need,” he added. “I think that young people in particular, and all of us in general, need to understand what civil liberties are all about.”
It’s actually not that surprising that Sessions would accept a speaking invitation at the CVUUS. He is a founding member of the congregation. He will be introduced on April 13 by none other than his granddaughter, Livia Bernhardt, a member of a CVUUS youth group that is raising funds for an upcoming service trip. While judicial ethics preclude Sessions from allowing admission to be charged for his talk, the youth group will solicit donations for its service trip at a reception following the talk.
The First Amendment seemed like a natural topic for Sessions’ talk, given recent events in Middlebury. On March 2, scores of Middlebury College students shouted down controversial author Charles Murray, who had been invited to speak on campus. The protest escalated to violence, resulting in injuries to college Professor Allison Stanger, sustained while escorting Murray out of the speaking venue.
The event generated negative headlines nationwide, with student organizers drawing fire for muzzling Murray.
Sessions stressed that his April 13 talk will focus on judicial process and will not evolve into a critique of other judges’ decisions, nor touch upon how he might have ruled in controversial cases adjudicated by other courts.
“I would like to analyze how judges approach First Amendment issues,” Sessions said. “This is not going to be, ‘Gee, I think the First Amendment is a good thing.’ What I’d like to talk about is how you approach these particular questions and what are the standards that you use in determining whether a piece of legislation violated the First Amendment or not.”
He explained there are four basic principles that judges apply, at the very outset, when determining First Amendment issues:
•  Does the complaint have legitimate standing in court?
•  What legal standards can be applied in evaluating the complaint?
•  Is the complaint too vague?
•  Over-breadth — does a federal or state law unduly infringe on First Amendment rights in order to accomplish its objective?
Sessions will apply these procedural standards to judicial review of some recent, high-profile cases, including President Donald Trump’s two proposed  travel bans affecting citizens from several Muslim countries.
The judge will then will go through some of the major categories of First Amendment litigation, including hate speech, fighting words, campaign finance reform, and obscenity versus pornography.
“I’ll give an overview of how judges apply concepts to those areas, and what the courts generally hold,” Sessions said.
Sessions will also field questions from the audience.
At 70, Sessions has no plans to wind down what has been an eventful career in the judiciary.
He served as Addison County Public Defender prior to entering private practice in 1978. He also served as an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School from 1978 to 1995, when then-President William Clinton appointed him to the U.S. District Court judgeship vacated by Judge Fred Parker. He is also past chairman of the United States Sentencing Commission.
“I still really love it,” Sessions said of his profession.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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