Burlington Free Press File Photo
Judge Geoffrey Crawford gives instructions to a Chittenden County jury in July 2008.
MONTPELIER — Vermont’s legal community hailed the appointment Friday of veteran trial court judge Geoffrey Crawford to the Vermont Supreme Court, saying his intellect, pragmatism and compassion will enrich future decisions from the five-justice panel.
Crawford, 59, has served on Vermont trial courts since 2002 and presided over some of the highest-profile civil and criminal cases of the last decade.
An early adopter of alternative sentencing models, he is known for a gentle courtroom disposition that, according to his supporters, has improved experiences in the criminal justice system for victims and defendants alike.
“He’s incredibly bright, a really smart man, and there’s no question he has the intellectual depth to handle the work of the Supreme Court,” said Cheryl Hanna, a professor of constitutional law at Vermont Law School and a close observer of the Vermont Supreme Court.
“But I think maybe even more importantly, he has a reputation — and I’ve witnessed this in the courtroom myself — of being incredibly humanistic,” she said.
Crawford is the second appointment to the high court for second-term Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who named Beth Robinson, the legal force behind a gay marriage movement, to the court in 2011. Though they followed different paths to the bench, Hanna said Crawford and Robinson share a “real understanding of how law affects people.”
Daniel Richardson, a Montpelier attorney and founder and editor of the SCOV Law blog, an online publication that analyzes decisions out of the Vermont Supreme Court, said Crawford’s humanity and his eye toward the practical impact of decisions will likely be reflected in his approach to the work of the court.
“He’s not someone who’s going to be ruled by what the statute said, if the result is going to be absurd,” Richardson said.
In much the same way as Robinson and Associate Justice John Dooley, according to Richardson, Crawford is likely to find “creative” solutions to instances in which “the law requires a result that’s absurd, especially in an administrative-type proceeding.”
“He’s going to come up with solutions that make sense on a practical level, rather than just saying, ‘Our hands are tied, we can’t do any more, because we’re a court,” Richardson said.
In a statement announcing the decision, Shumlin, who chose Crawford from a list of names forwarded to him by the state’s Judicial Nominating Board, touted his pick’s “collegial attitude” and “well-regarded intellect.”
“His reputation for fairness and rigor, as well as his demonstrated commitment to ensuring that our judiciary serves the needs of Vermonters, make me very proud to appoint him to the court,” Shumlin said.
Crawford, who worked in commercial litigation and personal injury at the Burlington firm of O’Neill Crawford & Green before joining the bench, said in a telephone interview that “the values that I try to realize are pragmatism, kindness and some measure of predictability in court decision-making.”
Crawford wouldn’t talk about his judicial philosophy or discuss the cases that may come before the court.
“Above all we’re a neutral people — that’s the biggest thing that’s asked of us,” Crawford said. “And if we stake out positions, even on a general topic, one side or another is going to have a concern that they’re not going to get listened to as fairly.”
Crawford often adopts a sweet, grandfatherly tone with the defendants over whose cases he presides. His approach, Crawford said, is designed to capitalize on the unique opportunity for human connection offered in a criminal courtroom.
“Most people don’t listen to each other most of the time,” he said. “But there are some times in life when that little window opens, and people listen very carefully. Hospital emergency rooms strike me as one of those times, and the courtroom I think is another.”
Crawford added, “That defendant is listening really carefully to what you have to say (as a judge), both what you say with your words and what you say with your manner. And if you’re respectful, and in some way optimistic and sort of hopeful, that I think carries some weight.”
Crawford presides in Franklin County now but was stationed in Chittenden County immediately prior, where he made frequent use of the alternative sentencing options. Mental health courts and drug courts, he said, work especially well for defendants who are willing to play a role in their own rehabilitation.
“People want to change, many of them want to change, and treatment courts and similar programs and early referral to drug evaluation, these things open a door and give a chance,” he said. “And if a person walks through that door and sees the opportunity, we’re all better off.”
Crawford, whose confirmation by the Vermont Senate next year is all but certain, replaces retired Associate Justice Brian Burgess.
Burgess’ departure, and Crawford’s arrival, stacks the state’s highest court with Democratic governors’ appointees, who will hold four of the five seats.
Hanna and Richardson said the court could see any number of hot-button issues come before it in the coming years, from the growing use of technology by law enforcement to the constitutionality of key aspects of health care reform.
Crawford, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, is perhaps best known for his judgment in the case of Diana Levine, the Vermont musician who lost her arm after receiving an injection of a drug made by the manufacturer Wyeth.
A Washington County jury awarded Levine more than $6 million in damages, a judgment entered by Crawford, who denied the claims of federal pre-emption argued by lawyers for Wyeth.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a majority of justices said Crawford’s ruling — that Vermont courts retained the right to award damages in cases involving drugs regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration — was correct.
Crawford also presided over the criminal case of Christopher Williams, who was convicted of the first-degree murders of two women in a 2006 school shooting in Essex.
According to information from the Shumlin administration, Crawford is a board member of both Dismas of Vermont and the New England Organ Bank. He is a past recipient of the Thibodeau-Wall Award for Community Service by the Howard Center, as well as the Catherine McAuley Award by Mercy Connection. He and his wife live in Burlington and have five grown children.
Robert Paolini, executive director of the Vermont Bar Association, said response to Crawford’s pick has been positive.
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