By DAVE GRAM
MONTPELIER, Vt. – Gov. Peter Shumlin has nominated to the state Supreme Court a Vermont lawyer who championed marriage rights for gays and lesbians and is now his general counsel.
Beth Robinson, 46, was on the legal team that represented three same-sex couples at the center of the landmark state Supreme Court decision in 1999 that found such couples were being denied the rights and benefits of marriage in violation of the state constitution. The court said the Legislature should produce a remedy, and in 2000, Vermont became the first state to allow gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.
As head of Vermont Freedom to Marry, Robinson, a lesbian, was a key backer of a 2009 law that made Vermont the first state to offer full marriage to same-sex couples without a court order telling lawmakers to do so.
“Beth’s strong legal background, experience with crafting legislation at the Statehouse and commitment to the equal rights of all Vermonters will make her an exceptional justice on the Vermont Supreme Court,” Shumlin said Monday at a news conference.
Senate confirmation was seen as assured. Shumlin’s fellow Democrats control 20 of 30 seats in the chamber, with eight Republicans, one Progressive and one senator who won election on a Democratic-Progressive “fusion” ticket.
“I’ve always had the highest respect and regard for Beth Robinson,” said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We look forward to going through the confirmation process with her.” He added, “I doubt there will be much controversy.”
Robinson and Shumlin have been close political allies. As Senate president pro tem in 2009, he led the effort to pass the bill granting full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. She endorsed him in last year’s campaign and helped bring gay rights supporters and their campaign contributions to him during the closely fought five-way race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
She said at the news conference that as she talked with Shumlin about becoming his general counsel, she indicated an interest in applying for a nomination to the state’s high court if there were an opening.
Robinson said she was reluctant to discuss specific cases, but responded to a question about the 1999 decision in which the court said the Legislature should act on the marriage issue by saying it pointed up the close relationship between the branches government.
“We talk a lot about the separation of powers as a fundamental constitutional principle, and I believe that,” she said. “But I also came to experience first-hand the complete interdependence of our separate branches, and the importance of involving all of them in the conversations that we have about fundamental constitutional rights.”
The Indiana native graduated from Dartmouth College in 1986 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1989.
The national group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders presented Robinson with its Spirit of Justice Award in 2009 and issued a statement Tuesday praising her appointment.
“”Beth’s intelligence, passion for justice, and down-to-earth nature will make her a superb jurist,” said Lee Swislow, executive director of GLAD. “We are thrilled for her and for the people of Vermont today.”
Before joining Shumlin as general counsel- or chief legal adviser- Robinson worked in private legal practice for 18 years with the firm of Langrock, Sperry & Wool in Middlebury and Burlington. She said she worked in family and employment law and other civil matters. Her experience in criminal law is limited, she acknowledged, but noted that she worked when first out of law school doing white-collar criminal defense work for a firm in Washington, D.C.
Robert Paolini, executive director of the Vermont Bar Association, said he was not troubled by Robinson’s limited experience in criminal law. “You’re not going to find a lawyer or judge who knows every issue,” he said.
Long-time same-sex marriage opponent Craig Bensen voiced dismay at the appointment.
“You can expect that when some poor Vermont business has to take a case based on some bathroom issue to the courts, something about who is bisexual or transgendered or feeling transgendered that day, it will end up in front of (the Supreme) Court, and you’ll have a leading political advocate dispensing justice,” Bensen said.
Pointing to the political alliance between Shumlin and Robinson, Bensen added, “As an idealist, spoils and reward is a lousy way to pick justices for the Supreme Court.”
Robinson said during the news conference that she could put aside her role as an advocate while serving as a judge, and that she would offer to step aside from hearing certain cases if that seemed appropriate.