Justice Morse retires to head up SRS

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(Host) Vermont’s lawyers and politicians are stunned by Supreme Court Justice James Morse’s decision to resign from the bench to become the state’s next commissioner of Social and Rehabilitative Services. The Morse appointment will be formally announced on Thursday afternoon.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Sound of court being called to order.) “Good afternoon, your honors. The matter before the court….”

(Kinzel) As daylight streamed through the five enormous rectangular windows of the Vermont Supreme Court, it was clear that the chamber was a different place on Wednesday because one of its five members was absent. Justice James Morse, who was appointed to the court 15 years ago by Governor Madeleine Kunin, was not present to hear any of the cases before the court, and his brass name plate had already been removed from the bench.

Morse, who had served as a superior court judge before being appointed to the supreme court, has decided to step down to join the Douglas administration as the next SRS commissioner. Morse will replace longtime Commissioner Bill Young, who after serving 18 years in that post, was not re-appointed by Governor Jim Douglas.

The director of the Vermont Bar Association, Robert Paolini, says there’s no doubt that the state’s legal community was shocked by this development:

(Paolini) “I was surprised and from the feedback that I’ve had in the last four or five hours in this office, I think everybody was kind of surprised. But you know, Justice Morse has always had an interest in the juvenile system. So although I’m surprised, that’s kind of a logical place to see him go.”

(Kinzel) Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, who’s focused his committee on a variety of juvenile justice issues, says Morse is walking into one of the hardest jobs in state government:

(Sears) “You’re always running a tightrope as to what might happen with people in your custody. We saw that with the Christal Jones case last year. I know it’s a challenge. I think Justice Morse will be up to that challenge and I wish him well, but it’s a real, real tough job.”

(Kinzel) The dean of the Vermont Law School, Kinvin Wroth, says Morse played an important role in two of the Court’s biggest rulings in recent times: the Brigham decision that led to the passage of Act 60, and the Baker decision which resulted in the passage of the state’s civil union law:

(Wroth) “He’s brought a kind of an air of higher intellectual concern for the law and legal ideas that other members of the court share as well, but it was certainly part of his contribution.”

(Kinzel) Outgoing SRS Commissioner Bill Young says Morse faces some significant challenges at SRS. Young says increased drug abuse by parents and teens has resulted in a rise in the number of child abuse cases in Vermont in the past 12 months:

(Young) “It has been clear as I’ve talked with our folks in the districts over the course of the last year that those numbers do continue to increase. And people need to know that, until as a state – and that means everybody in the state – until we find a way to confront that problem, our children are going to die in increasing numbers. And they are.”

(Kinzel) Morse’s resignation gives Governor Douglas the very unusual opportunity to name a new supreme court justice in the first months of his new administration. Applications will be reviewed by the state’s Judicial Nominating Board and the panel will then forward a group of recommendations to the governor. Morse was one of two trial court judges on the supreme court and Vermont Bar Association Director Paolini hopes that the governor will select a sitting judge for this vacancy:

(Paolini) “But clearly most of what they deal with is a claim of error at a lower court, so trial experience I think would be the biggest asset to an applicant.”

(Kinzel) Vermont Law School Dean Wroth thinks the governor’s upcoming court appointment will reveal a lot about Douglas’s judicial philosophy:

(Wroth) “But it is an opportunity certainly if not to shape the Court at least make a statement about what his own views of the role of the Court and the kind of intellect that ought to be on the court are.”

(Kinzel) It’s expected that the selection process for a new Supreme Court justice will take several months.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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