In the crowded courtroom of the Rutland Civil Court last Thursday, Judge William “Bill” Cohen was sworn in by Gov. Phil Scott to become the most recent addition to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Cohen’s achievements were praised by another judge, one of his colleagues from the Vermont Supreme Court, a retired judge who has known Cohen from his 20 years as a trial judge, the governor, and Cohen’s daughter, Alix.
“But it’s now time to move on. I will miss so much about being a trial judge, but I look forward to this new adventure. I will honor my commitment to the great people of this state by providing appropriate adjudication that everyone living, working and visiting (in Vermont) deserves,” the native Rutlander said.
Scott talked about the challenge he faced in finding the right candidate to join the other four justices on the Vermont Supreme Court after Justice Marilyn Skoglund retired in September. He pointed out the decisions made by the court can be “life-changing.”
“After 20 years as trial judge and being one of the few (candidates) to have extensive experience in the criminal, civil and family courts, 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,” the governor said.
Speakers during the ceremony pointed out that many members of Cohen’s family were in the second-floor courtroom, but Alix Cohen spoke about how excited she was to see her father have a chance to serve the people of Vermont.
Alix Cohen spoke about an early memory when she was a student at Northeast Elementary School and saw her father’s name in the newspaper.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be a judge. I didn’t know what a judge was. All I could remember was the way I felt sharing the clipping. I felt pride, but more importantly, I felt excitement about the future. My dad had always talked about the importance of fairness. To see him in the newspaper — above the fold this time — meant he was taking those lessons he taught me at home to so many more people,” she said.
Justice Cohen, who lives in Rutland Town, also grew up in Rutland and attended city schools. After graduating Rutland High School in 1975, he earned a degree in environmental science from George Washington University and a law degree from Vermont Law School.
To become a Vermont Supreme Court justice, Cohen is leaving trial court positions in Rutland and Bennington counties.
Erica Marthage, Bennington County State’s Attorney, said she “greatly admires and respects” Cohen.
“Throughout his tenure, as others have noted, he’s earned the respect of his colleagues through his balance of impartiality, objectivity and empathy. Judicial temperament is the cumulative presence of all these qualities, and to steal something from one of my 13-year-olds, ‘Judge Cohen’s all that,’” she said.
The experience of serving on the bench in Montpelier will not be entirely new for Cohen. Fellow Justice Harold Eaton said he and Cohen have known each other since 1984 when a DUI case became the first jury trial for prosecutor Cohen, although the jury sided with Eaton, in part because of a frisky golden retriever named Beau who was in the car when police stopped Eaton’s client.
“Although we won an acquittal, I remember being impressed with Bill’s preparation, his aggressive but measured cross-examination of my witnesses, other than Beau, and his poise. It was a pleasure trying the case against him,” he said.
After being sworn in, Cohen talked about what it was like to be sworn in to the state’s highest court in one of the courts where his legal career began.
“It’s a great honor. It’s a great honor, and I’m glad to be able to do it in Rutland with my family and friends. There are people I went to elementary school (with) here today. We all grew up together in Rutland,” he said.