Monday, December 30, 2019

Justice Cohen Sworn-In

Governor Phil Scott swore in Superior Court Judge William D. Cohen of Rutland, Vermont as a Vermont Supreme Court Justice before a packed courtroom at the Rutland County Courthouse on December 19, 2019. Justice Cohen replaces former Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund on the Supreme Court, starting work in Montpelier on December 23. Justice Cohen has served as a trial court judge primarily in Rutland and Bennington Counties, since 1999. Prior to his service on the trial court bench, he was in private practice in Rutland and served as a Rutland County deputy state’s attorney after graduating from Vermont Law School in 1983. 

At the swearing-in ceremony, Burlington attorney Ritchie Berger (who grew up in Rutland and went to grade school and high school with Justice Cohen but discreetly refrained from sharing specific stories from those days) welcomed the standing-room only crowd with warm words about his life-long friend. He also regaled the room with references to Justice Cohen’s prowess on the running and biking paths and finished with tongue-in-cheek appreciation for all the pro bono work Justice Cohen sent to him.

Vermont Supreme Court Justice Harold Eaton, a fellow VLS alumnus, shared stories dating back to when Justice Cohen was a deputy state’s attorney and Justice Eaton was a criminal defense lawyer in Rutland. Rules of evidence regarding the admissibility of canine behavior were involved. He also shared more recent stories from when both attended a judicial conference and a rock concert was involved. He welcomed Justice Cohen to the Court on behalf of his fellow Justices.

Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage spoke of the great admiration and respect she has for Justice Cohen. She noted his balance of impartiality, objectivity and empathy that she’s observed during the years that Judge Cohen sat in Bennington County. Known for creating limericks for retiring jurists, State’s Attorney Marthage instead recited a haiku for the occasion:

Rise, rise up
As you embrace destiny
Smile and be breathless

Retired Superior Court Judge David Howard (apparently in attendance at the same rock concert noted above) spoke of the deep respect he and his fellow trial judges have for Justice Cohen, and the support they’ve provided each other over the years. He did wonder what new topic will replace his and Justice Cohen’s long-time favorite topic – the latest (in their view) erroneous Supreme Court decision!

VBA Executive Director Teri Corsones relayed two stories from her and Justice Cohen’s 37 years of shared legal experiences working together as new lawyers and then in the courts. The first, to underscore the humility that Governor Scott noted when making the appointment, a story about Judge Cohen sustaining an objection to his own line of questions from the bench. The second, to underscore the essence of Judge Cohen’s approach to being a judge, a story about him quietly stating “it matters to me” in response to a suggestion that processes don’t really matter if a litigant has little chance of success. Noting that every person in front of him does truly matter to him, Teri remarked that is what made him a great trial judge and it is what will make him a great Supreme Court Justice.

Retired Castleton University President David Wolk won the contest for knowing Justice Cohen the longest. The Wolk and Cohen families are long-time Rutland families and President Wolk remembers baby-sitting the future Justice when he was just a toddler. President Wolk spoke of the strong Rutland values of common sense, compassion and a dedicated work ethic that Justice Cohen will bring to his role on the high court.

The final speaker was Justice Cohen’s and his wife’s vivacious daughter, Alix Cohen, who spoke with pride about taking a newspaper clipping of an article about Justice Cohen’s appointment to the trial bench to her kindergarten class ‘show and tell.’ She said she didn’t even know what a judge was but was excited to think that her dad was going to be helping others figure out the right thing to do, like he always helped her figure out the right thing to do. She spoke of the pride she has in his accomplishments today, and what a great role model he is for her and for her brother.

Governor Scott described how pleased he was to make the appointment. Noting how independent courts are essential to a free and just society, he said he was proud to appoint Justice Cohen and he was confident that he would serve with respect, dignity and fairness. “I have no doubt that Judge Cohen has the experience, the temperament and the management skills to fit right in and excel in his new role,” Scott said.

After being sworn-in, Justice Cohen expressed his gratitude to the many friends and colleagues who had supported him throughout his legal career, explaining that the “art” of judging comes from having mentors and colleagues with years of experience that’s shared without hesitation. He also spoke with gratitude of the many lawyers who routinely represent those in need, with professionalism and with great skill. He thanked court staff who work tirelessly to ensure that the court system functions no matter the burdens the system faces. He is very much looking forward to honoring his commitment to provide appropriate adjudication that he says everyone living and working in this state deserves.

Enjoy pictures from the ceremony, below.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Legislators' Days in the Courts 2019

The VBA was pleased to once again co-host with the Judiciary and the county bar associations a series of Legislators’ Days in the courts in 2019. Starting with Addison County on October 9 and ending with Lamoille County on December 11, state legislators were invited to visit courts on a specific date in each county.

A typical Legislators’ Day involved welcoming participating legislators with coffee and breakfast and providing them with the day’s court calendars. Bar ambassadors and/or VBA Executive Director Teri Corsones accompanied legislators to whatever court hearings they selected for the morning. If judges’ schedules allowed, they met with legislators in chambers to talk about what the legislators had observed. A luncheon attended by the legislators, all the judicial officers, bar ambassadors from each division and court personnel followed over the noon hour.

Many legislators commented on how helpful it was to them to be able to observe court hearings, and to see live results of legislation they’d voted on. They were also especially appreciative of the chance to visit with judges and bar members, to ask questions and to get information about issues affecting the courts and the bar. Legislators were invited to observe court hearings in the afternoon, as well. Many thanks to the bar ambassadors for participating in Legislators’ Days, and for their willingness to serve as resources to their area legislators when questions arise during the upcoming legislative session.

Here are the photos from each County:


Happy Holidays from the VBA!

The VBA office has been filled with holiday spirit! Thank you so much to all those who have sent us goodies over the last few weeks. Trust they were all consumed with smiles. Our Executive Director, Teri Corsones, made us all these beautiful cheesecakes and even Boris and Fiona got new toys! Happy Holidays from all of us at the VBA. We hope your season is filled with good health, warmth, peace, love, family and fun.


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Focusing on Bankruptcy...and Dignity!

What a treat it was to attend the 19th annual Bankruptcy Holiday Luncheon and CLE last Friday at the Killington Grand Resort.  VBA Bankruptcy Section Co-Chairs, Don Hayes and Nancy Geise put together a varied, informative and entertaining day packed with 7 hours of CLE credit. Despite the packed schedule, the collegial bar still found time to socialize and network.  Questions flew during each segment, so we knew the attendees were truly listening with rapt attention.

The day started out with a hot breakfast followed by the ever-engaging and interactive ethics presentation by Bar Counsel and Past-President Mike Kennedy.  This was followed by the always popular annual case summaries, presented by Renee Staudinger Calabro and Samantha Henchen -- touching on all cases from reaffirmations to sanctions and reorganizations to discharges and everything in between. We next learned all about student loans from Melissa Ranaldo and Todd Taylor. After (and during!) a quick lunch break, US Bankruptcy Judge Colleen Brown presented the State of the Court after a bench and bar meeting to discuss any new rule, code and form changes affecting the daily bankruptcy practice. The State of the Court highlights will be revealed below, as they truly were a highlight of the day!

Next up, “Lost in the Weeds” presented by Heather Cooper, Andrew Subin and Tim Fair, where the impossible intersection (rather, near miss) of the world of cannabis and bankruptcy law was discussed. With state and federal laws at odds with each other and the quick boom and bust of many hemp farms and cannabis-related businesses, the panelists explored a world where bankruptcy is needed but unavailable to date. This segued perfectly into the next panel demystifying Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies, presented by Chapter 12 Trustee Jan Sensenich, Judge Brown, Peter Fitzgerald and Rebecca Rice. The presenters emphasized the underutilized and limitless possibilities for farmers presented by Chapter 12 relief. Finally, Don Hayes and Marc Webb hosted an interactive problem-solving session complete with hypotheticals, electronic voting devices and fascinating discussions about pressing ethical and legal issues facing debtors, creditors and their attorneys.

Despite the non-stop snow throughout the day, and skiers longing to step outside and take a run, the attendees remained engaged for the full day.  In her State of the Court remarks, Judge Brown posited the idea that practicing in bankruptcy court, and particularly by engaging in pro bono work in bankruptcy court, is a true antidote to what she describes as the “growing economic disparity in our country, and even more so, the ‘them versus us’ paradigm that seems to frame our descriptions of virtually every type of conflict.” How so, you ask? Well Judge Brown started by describing how by engaging in pro bono work, attorneys interact with people they may not ordinarily know and not only provide direct benefit to them, but receive “personal gratification of helping another.”

Generally, pro bono work is about deeply listening to clients' stories. She noted: “It is also showing that you recognize these clients as individuals, not just a part of the monolithic ‘other.’ In many instances, it will generate a sense of compassion for others – and by extension have an impact on the way you interact with others in all aspects of your life.” For bankruptcy pro bono, in particular, it is easy to be humble recognizing that the majority of bankruptcy cases are filed due to circumstances beyond the debtor’s control: job loss, medical expenses, divorce, dropping milk prices, death of a small business owner, outsourcing, online shopping and so many other circumstances that negatively impact a larger community. Judge Brown praised the Vermont bankruptcy bar for their unique generosity, collaboration, professionalism and fairness when working together with respect to achieve equity especially with the “growing number of divides in our country.”

Judge Brown’s closing remarks were an inspiration to us all as she expressed her hopes that we will all continue to “find ways to expand the practices we have here, out into our worlds; be sensitive to differences; reach out to help people – and learn the stories of people – we might not otherwise know; and intentionally resist situations which try to draw us into a them-versus-us mentality so we can focus on the dignity of each person. I also wish each of you good health, peace, and joy in 2020!”  As from Judge Brown, so as from the VBA, we wish you all the ability to focus on the dignity of each client, colleague, friend, family member and stranger, and to have good health, peace and joy in 2020!

Here are some highlights from the day: