Judge William Cohen is going to Montpelier.
Gov. Phil Scott announced last Thursday he had appointed the Rutland native to the Vermont Supreme Court, filling the vacancy left in September with the retirement of Justice Marilyn Skoglund. Cohen will be sworn in later this month.
“Bill understands the needs of Vermonters as well as the challenges facing the judiciary and the justice system,” Scott said in a news release. “Among a very strong candidate pool, Bill distinguished himself as someone with the right experience, temperament and character to serve the judiciary with excellence as an associate justice.”
Cohen said he was at the courthouse in Bennington — his current assignment has him splitting his time between there and Rutland — when he got the call, and that he reacted with “mixed emotions.”
“Elation, relief that it was over, some trepidation,” he said. “I’ll miss the people I work with in the trial courts. I’ll miss Vermont juries. I always feel connected to the Vermont jurors. They’re remarkable at what they do.”
The new job, he said, will mean a lot more reading and a lot more research.
“The big difference is now, I write for myself and whatever audience my case is for. When you’re a justice on the Supreme Court, you write for five — five people,” he said.
Also, it means more driving. Cohen said he will swap his current commute from Rutland to Bennington for one to Montpelier.
“I can take an office — I can get an office in the civil court in Rutland,” he said. “I would expect to drive up there four days a week and work from the civil division one day.”
Cohen, 62, graduated from Rutland High School in 1975. He spent a year running a chairlift at Killington before studying environmental science at George Washington University, and went on from there to Vermont Law School. After law school, he took a job in the local state’s attorney’s office. Cohen said longtime Rutland County prosecutor James Mongeon not only gave him his first job, but taught him “how to be independent.”
“The great thing about being a deputy state’s attorney right out of law school is you get to try cases, exposure to judges, you’re in court a lot,” he said. “You have to learn quickly.”
Cohen said his view of law was heavily shaped by Lawrence Miller, who he worked with at Miller, Morton and Cleary.
“He had an incredible sense of how civil litigation worked and the complexities of civil litigation,” Cohen said. “He had this amazing sense of the process.”
His greatest influence, Cohen said, was the late Judge Frank McCaffrey.
“There was nobody who knew how to do this job better, trial judge,” Cohen said. “The way he treated people, managed cases, never ducking controversial cases and always having a human side or looking at the human side. He always looked at the human side. He never forgot about the fact that the people in front of him were real people. They weren’t just pieces of paper in a file.”