Marriage equality champion Justice Beth Robinson nominated to federal court

Associate Justice Beth Robinson of the Vermont Supreme Court is shown on the bench in February 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

President Joe Biden on Thursday nominated Vermont Supreme Court Justice Beth Robinson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. If confirmed by the Senate, she would become the first openly LGBTQ+ woman to serve on a federal appellate court.

Robinson, 56 and a long-time Addison County resident, played a leading role in the movement to legalize same-sex marriage in Vermont and subsequently served as legal counsel to then-Gov. Peter Shumlin. He appointed her to the state Supreme Court in 2011.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the most senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recommended Robinson to Biden, according to Leahy spokesperson David Carle. In a written statement, the senator called her “a tireless champion for equal rights and equal justice in the mold of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

“I know that, if confirmed, Justice Robinson would serve on the Second Circuit with integrity, humility, and a deep reverence for the rule of law,” Leahy said. “And I have no doubt that she would make all Vermonters and Americans proud.”

The powerful Second Circuit hears federal appeals originating in New York, Connecticut and Vermont. Its docket is often dominated by cases coming out of New York, including high-profile financial and terrorism cases, according to Lisa Holmes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of justice in America, it hears “relatively few” of the cases appealed to it, Holmes said. That means it is the circuit courts that often have the final word on federal cases.

“These courts of appeals are very, very important in terms of shaping law across the country,” said Holmes, an expert on the federal bench.

Historically, at least one member of the Second Circuit has hailed from Vermont. That seat opened up in March when Judge Peter Hall of North Chittenden took senior status — just days before he died at 72.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who studies federal court nominations, called Robinson’s nomination historic. Though the U.S. Senate is only narrowly controlled by Democrats, he said he expected that she would encounter “a smooth confirmation process” — in part due to Leahy’s strong support for her.

Former colleagues of Robinson hailed her nomination. Retired Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund, who served alongside Robinson for eight years, called the appointment “brilliant” and said she was both “tickled” and “euphoric” about the news.

“She is one of the finest jurists I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” Skoglund said. “I was so impressed with her work ethic. She just really drilled down, in every case, and chewed up every issue, and came out with a thoughtful decision or opinion or position. And it was such a privilege to work with her. She made me smarter.”

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Dooley echoed the praise. Robinson, he said, was “a wonderful justice and a wonderful colleague — very committed to what she was doing, very knowledgeable, very intelligent, and was exactly the kind of justice we needed.”

“And that’s why I have mixed feelings about this,” Dooley continued. “She certainly deserves and would be a great U.S. Court of Appeals judge. But we’re really losing a very good justice, which will be a loss.”

If Robinson is confirmed by the Senate and resigns her seat on the five-member Vermont Supreme Court, Republican Gov. Phil Scott would appoint her replacement. In a statement Thursday, he applauded Biden for making what he called a “historic nomination” and urged the Senate to confirm Robinson.

“Justice Robinson has been a steadfast public servant for the people of Vermont and has served admirably on the Vermont Supreme Court,” Scott said in a written statement. “She will make a great addition to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, bringing the Vermont values of commitment to justice and equality, fairness, and Freedom & Unity to the bench.”

Born in Indiana in 1965, Robinson earned degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of Chicago Law School. She clerked for Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, after which she worked in private practice for the Vermont law firm Langrock Sperry Wool for 18 years.

Robinson served as co-counsel in the Baker v. State of Vermont lawsuit, which led to the enactment of the country’s first civil union law in 2000. She later led the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, which successfully lobbied for the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2009.

Peter Teachout, a professor at Vermont Law School, called Robinson an “excellent choice” for the Second Circuit, citing her work on Vermont’s highest court.

“The questions she asks from the bench in cases before the court reflect careful and thoughtful preparation, demonstrate a solid command of the facts and law, and often go right to the heart of the matter,” Teachout said in an email to VTDigger. “Her own oral argument before the Vermont Supreme Court in Baker v. State when she was in practice was one of the best oral arguments I have ever witnessed.”

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