Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff file photo
Longtime Vermont judge Franklin S. Billings Jr., pictured here receiving a Purple Heart pinned on by his wife in 2010, died Sunday at age 91.
WOODSTOCK — Back in 1925, Franklin S. Billings Jr., then age 3, scampered on his family’s porch beside his father, who was governor of Vermont, and friend Calvin Coolidge, who was president of the United States.
It didn’t matter that the Secret Service shooed him away. Billings already had inherited a passion for public life he would share — as a state speaker of the House, Supreme Court chief justice and U.S. District Court judge — until his death Sunday at the home where he was born 91 years ago.
“He exemplified the best qualities of Vermont and what a Vermont statesman should be,” said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who first met Billings as a fledgling lawyer recruited to help the Legislature navigate the New Frontier of the 1960s.
Entering the world June 5, 1922, Billings was believed to be the great-great-grandson of the first white colonist born in Vermont (in 1754). He went to Woodstock public schools until 1935, when his father died of a heart attack and his mother moved the family to her native Milton, Mass.
Billings graduated from Harvard University in 1943, only to flunk his physical exam for World War II military service. Undeterred, he volunteered as an Army ambulance driver in Italy, where he crawled out of a flaming vehicle after it struck a landmine in 1944, only to be rescued by a British transport that tipped over, mixing up his identification with the papers of an injured German lieutenant.
(Billings would finally receive a Purple Heart for his efforts in 2010.)
Earning a law degree from the University of Virginia School in 1947, Billings returned to his Vermont roots, where elementary classmates welcomed him to join their high school reunions.
Locally, Billings served as a village trustee, Select Board member, school director, planning commissioner, library trustee and town moderator and, regionally, as a Hartford municipal court judge from 1955-62.
At the state level, he was assistant Senate secretary from 1949-54, Gov. Joseph Johnson’s executive clerk from 1955-56, Senate secretary from 1957-59 and Gov. Robert Stafford’s secretary of civil and military affairs from 1959-60.
Elected Woodstock’s state House representative in 1960, the Republican joined 10 other freshmen in an informal caucus tagged the “Young Turks.” When one of them — a fellow lawyer named Philip Hoff — was inaugurated as the state’s first popularly elected Democratic governor in 1963, Billings was voted speaker of the House.
The first Vermonter to win two consecutive terms, Billings presided over the Legislature that reapportioned itself from a 246-seat House where each of Vermont’s cities and towns had its own representative to the current 150-member chamber.
Billings would support Hoff over Republican challenger Richard Snelling in 1966, then win the Democrat’s appointment as a Superior Court judge later that year and earn succeeding Gov. Thomas P. Salmon’s nomination as a Supreme Court justice in 1975.
But Billings ascended to his top posts thanks to the GOP. Snelling, after trying to torpedo his Superior Court selection, named him Supreme Court chief justice in 1982 — the first in state history to be decided by the chief executive rather than by seniority.
President Ronald Reagan promoted Billings to the U.S. District Court in 1984 — but only after postponing the process for months after partisans questioned whether Billings was an “activist” judge.
As state Supreme Court chief justice, Billings pushed for female judges (three decades ago, Vermont had yet to appoint one) and cameras in courtrooms (the state was the only one in New England to bar them).
“Society has changed, and I’m not sure this court has,” he said at the time. “The law has to develop with it.”
A full-time U.S. judge until his 72nd birthday in 1994, Billings became an outspoken opponent of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
“This type of statute denies the judges of this court and of all courts the right to bring their conscience, experience, discretion and sense of what is just into the sentencing procedure,” he said in 1990. “It, in effect, makes the judge a computer, automatically imposing sentences without regard to what is right.”
The same year, Billings presided over the first case tried in a federal court that allowed DNA testing as evidence.
Billings married Pauline Richardson Gillingham — granddaughter of the founder of Woodstock’s famed F.H. Gillingham & Sons general store — in 1951. The couple went on to raise four children: sons Frank and Jireh, who now own and operate the downtown institution, and daughters Elizabeth and Ann.
Billings was a member of the Grange, Masons and Shrine and on the board of Vermont Law School in South Royalton. He was also an original trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, having attended the president’s 1933 burial service at age 11.
Leahy, who as a U.S. senator would support Billings’ nomination to the federal court, said he always admired the late judge.
“He was wise and decent and generous,” Leahy said. “Though we were of different parties, he was always helpful in the best interests of Vermont, and never partisan.”
Leahy had graduated from law school in 1964 when Billings hired him to help draft the bill that would reapportion the Legislature.
“He used to invite me into his office and give me the history of what was going on,” Leahy recalled. “Even though I grew up in Montpelier almost across the street from the State House, I always learned something. I considered him one of the pivotal people in my own career.”
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who first met Billings upon moving to the state as a young lawyer in 1974, visited the retired judge at home earlier this winter.
“He was in failing health, but he was still reading the newspaper and interested in what I was doing,” the congressman said Monday. “That zest for life — you could still see it. That outward perspective is something he has always had and I suspect helped sustain him. He was an inspiration for me, but I know that’s true for many, many of us.”
Billings is survived by his wife of 62 years, four children and eight grandchildren.
“His great part in leadership was his ability to compromise and come out with the right answers for the greatest number of people,” his widow told The Associated Press. “One knew where he stood at all times. His word was his bond.”
The family will hold a private service “pursuant to Franklin’s wishes.” Memorial contributions can be made to the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock.
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