Former AG James Oakes dead at 83
By FRAN LYNGGAARD HANSEN Herald Correspondent | October 16,2007
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
U.S. Federal Court Judge James Oakes, a former state senator, Vermont attorney general, federal judge and U.S. appeals court judge, died Saturday on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. He was 83.
James L. Oakes, a Brattleboro resident and former senior judge to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, died Saturday at age 83.
"On the Second Circuit, and as chief of the Second Circuit, Judge James L. Oakes had a first-rate legal mind and was a person who could lead the court into being the most significant of courts," said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "He would have been extremely well-qualified to be on the Supreme Court, perhaps even more than many who've served there. I always appreciated his many talents."
During the 1960s, Oakes was serving as Vermont attorney general when Leahy was Chittenden County state's attorney. The two struck a lifelong friendship.
"I used to see him and we'd pick up a conversation in midsentence from one we might have had weeks before," Leahy said. "He was that sharp. I am a tremendous fan of Jim's. He is a man that all of Vermont, regardless of politics or party can appreciate. We can all be proud of his intellect, his sense of social justice, and be thankful for his many years of service to this state and the nation."
Oakes spent 36 years on the bench of the federal courts, first as a judge for the U.S. District Court beginning in 1971 and then on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served as chief judge, earning senior status on July 1, 1992. He retired in January 2007.
Authored by two former law clerks — Kathleen M. Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School, and William Treanor, the dean of Fordham Law School — a tribute to Oakes was printed in the N.Y. Law Journal at the time of his retirement that said, "Few judges have elicited so much affection from their law clerks or respect and admiration from their peers and with just reason. James L. Oakes defied easy political typecasting. Like other Vermont Republicans before and after him, he believed strongly in protecting constitutional right and liberties. He counted among his proudest rulings his decision applying Title IX to educational sex discrimination in North Haven Board of Education v. Hufstedler, his decision applying one-person, one-vote to New York City's Board of Estimate Morris v. Board of Estimate, and his decision in St. Cyr v INS permitting aliens to challenge petitions for remove — all decisions upheld upon review by the Supreme Court. He prized the Supreme Court's vindication of his en banc dissent in favor of the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case…."
"He also wrote a large body of distinguished opinions, some of them now classics in commercial contract cases, copyright cases, RICO cases, tax cases, employment cases and media cases, to name a few. He wrote his own opinions when that was very much a rarity, and he did it with incredible speed and brilliance. He would disappear into his office with the bench memos and the relevant case reports lined up on a rolling book cart, and then two or three hours later emerge with a lengthy, finished opinion, including citations. We sometimes wondered why he needed law clerks."
Geoffrey Shields, now dean of Vermont Law School, was one of those clerks.
"Jim had over 100 law clerks during his career on the U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals. He was a mentor and champion for every one of them," Shields said.
There were many sides to the man.
"One thing I'll never forget about Jim was how playful he was. When I was a clerk, he'd always have little basketball hoops around and mini-Frisbees; he loved activities and he loved games from poker to golf to bridge. He loved to banter with people. He liked and cared about people whatever their station. He learned from and befriended secretaries, postmen and store clerks as well as Supreme Court justices, senators and professors. He loved people and disregarded normal hierarchies," Shields said.
Oakes' eldest daughter Cynthia Meketa agreed.
"He had a very high intellect, but he was never a snob. He had ups and downs in his early life and he always identified with everybody, the cashier at the bank, the guy at the market, the man working at the dump. During one of his political campaigns, he was in Brattleboro doing meet and greet at the dump and actually got national press about that," she said. "But that was who he was, kind, generous to people who needed a helping hand. He was a sentimental softie and loved to be a mentor to people, especially his law clerks, shepherding their careers along."
Local lawyer and former state Sen. Robert T. Gannett was Oakes's law partner and friend for 58 years.
"Jim showed his concern for others regularly. He made himself available to young lawyers in the state who were preparing to take the state bar exam. He had an informal course. He was interested in people and in helping young lawyers to give them the benefit of his ample experience and his knowledge of Vermont state law. That always struck me as a good example of his feelings for younger people and to the profession of bringing quality to our practices in Vermont," Gannett said.
James L. Oakes was born Feb. 21, 1924, in Springfield, Ill., the son of Della Kuykendall Oakes and James Lowell Oakes. He graduated cum laude from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. After graduation, he served as a law clerk for Second Circuit Judge Harrie B. Chase from 1947 to 1948. Desiring to remain in Vermont he began practicing law with Gannett.
"I certainly want to emphasize that through my association with him over the years when he was practicing law, I came to realize that he had a brilliant legal mind. Anyone who has been associated with him when he was a lawyer, attorney general or as a judge would know that about him. He was a very competitive person, whether he was playing golf or poker or with his law practice. He loved to beat me in golf, and I loved to try to prevent him from doing so," Gannett remembered.
Oakes' lifelong interest in politics led him to become senator for Windham County from 1961 to 1969, and as attorney general of Vermont from 1967 to 1969, the only Republican state official elected that year.
Phillip H. Hoff was governor during the time Oakes served as attorney general.
"Jim and I had been friendly well in advance as lawyers before we were involved politically," Hoff said. "He was an excellent lawyer and also a great competitor. The thing that I remember about Jim is that he was elected attorney general during my third term as governor. It was a Democratic administration and Jim was a Republican, along the lines of Aiken and Gibson. I could have cared less about what his political persuasion was, I was glad he was on my team.
"We had a very bad racial incident in the northern part of the state, very unpleasant. I asked him to take personal charge of it and he did. He called it the way he saw it and the way it was. It was very much a situation where the police treated some citizens in some inexcusably racially motivated ways," Hoff said.
In an article he recently wrote, Oakes described what came to be called "The Irasburg Affair."
"A home in Irasburg was owned by a deputy clerk of the Vermont Supreme Court. She had rented it to a black minister, the Rev. Johnson, and his family …. Some redneck had shot out some windows in the Irasburg house. The Rev. Johnson had fired a few shots at the car that the redneck was driving, but it was not known whether any of the shots had hit the car. Saying that we don't want Vermont to be another Mississippi, I directed the state police to give the Rev. Johnson and his family 24-hour protection. My wife drove to Irasburg from Guilford and I went to the Irasburg house directly from Burlington (where he had been campaigning). We helped the family by doing dishes and the like, but it was to show our support. Little did I know that there would be a big backlash, particularly in the Northeast Kingdom, where the people had been less than enthusiastic, as Gov. Hoff's joint program with Mayor John Lindsey to have a Vermont-Harlem educational interchange of young people; I ultimately found out that a lot of people were worried about losing their jobs."
The State Police investigation of the shootout was going nowhere.
"I sent my deputy attorney general and later able judge, Frank Mahady, and my long-time investigator, Greg L'Ecuyer, to try to break the case. In less than 24 hours they solved it. The redneck, it turned out, was the son of an auto dealer in the town of Barton, near Irasburg," Oakes wrote.
"A college classmate and friend of mine with CBS in New York wrote a screenplay about the case, but it was never bought or produced. Howard Mosher, one of the press people with whom I had become acquainted, several years later wrote a book called "A Stranger in the Kingdom," which was adapted as an independent screenplay with the same name, Jay Craven being the producer," wrote Oakes. "I was sorry that I never saw Paul Newman play the role of the attorney general."
Hoff remembers, "The net result was that he did the honest thing and the right thing in Irasburg, irrespective of how that affected him politically."
Lola Aiken, widow of Sen. George D. Aiken, will remember Oakes for his heart. "If my husband were alive, he would have said that Jim got to the very top without making a big fuss about it, because he really gave of his heart. He worked very hard for so many people and was so very quiet about it. Like the governor, he was very down-to-earth all the time."
Judge Garvan Murtha concurred. "Jim was somebody who was not afraid to say what he thought when he was right, and many times reading his opinions, he really bucked the trends. He was never afraid to stand up for the rights of others and to name what was wrong. He was a brilliant, caring, funny man and appreciative of people. He was able to carry on a meaningful conversation, but was also a common person. He was a very wise man. He was highly respected by his colleagues, even when they disagreed with him. He always gave them a run for their money. In the Pentagon Papers case, he was dissenting, so he ended up on the wrong side in the Court of Appeals but the Supreme Court ended up agreeing with him."
His daughter, Betsy Oakes, sums up the feelings of many people interviewed for this article by reminding us all, "I think everyone who loved and admired my father will want to carry on his tremendous spirit of social justice. We should fight against racism. We need to safeguard the poor and the disadvantaged. We should further the protection of the environment. These are the things my father believed in. We can honor him by carrying forth the legacy he began."