(Host) A cooperative approach characterizes outgoing Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy’s years on the Supreme Court, according to judicial experts. They say Amestoy will leave a favorable legacy when he retires this summer.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Former Justice James Morse says Chief Justice Amestoy took a collaborative approach to his work.
(Morse) “He was just consistently collaborative. He was always upbeat and responsible and wanting to bring the court together and just get the job done.”
(Dillon) Amestoy’s style was evident in the court’s historic 1999 decision that extended rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.
(Morse) “Every member of the court had a significant hand in that case but the chief authored it and that says a lot.”
(Dillon) Writing for the court in the Baker case, Amestoy cut through the legal arguments with a clear statement of principle. He said that extending rights and protections to gays and lesbians was “simply when all is said done, a recognition of our common humanity.”
But Amestoy said the Legislature had to decide how the ruling would be implemented. In the 2000 session, lawmakers crafted the civil unions law as a parallel system to marriage.
(Peter Teachout) “I always thought that the way Justice Amestoy handled that decision – that was so delicate in some ways and so important – was truly masterful.”
(Dillon) Vermont Law School Professor Peter Teachout is an expert on the state constitution. He says that by giving the Legislature a role, Amestoy allowed the people to be heard.
(Teachout) “The hearings that the Legislature subsequently held were a model of democratic deliberation about an issue that really is extremely important. And I think that by taking that approach, Amestoy and the Amestoy court found a way to handle the problem that was superior to the one, say, that the Massachusetts court took recently – that simply mandated that under the state constitution gay marriage was constitutionally required. So in my judgment, that was a sign of real constitutional diplomacy, for which I have great respect.”
(Dillon) The Amestoy approach may have been diplomatic. But Beth Robinson, a Middlebury lawyer who argued the Baker case, both applauds the decision and says the court also sidestepped some of its responsibility.
(Robinson) “My own view is that the court did a wonderful thing and a correct thing when it recognized the common humanity of gay and lesbian Vermonters and our fundamental right to equality. And I think the court frankly failed in its duties when it stopped short of seeing those principles through to their logical conclusion in the Baker case, which is why the Baker case was both a great victory and a disappointment at the same time.”
(Dillon) Amestoy’s Supreme Court decision led to one of the most intense public debates the state has experienced.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.