Reiss takes gavel in Rutland as first Vt. female federal judge


Long before she was a Vermont judge, Christina Reiss was a French teacher at an Arizona college. Proficient in three languages, the Essex Center native was 22 years old when she went to the University of Arizona and enrolled in a master’s degree program in pursuit of a career as a literary translator. To pay for tuition, she taught French. But Reiss, much more familiar to Vermonters as first a state judge and now a U.S. District Court judge serving on the bench in Rutland, said it wasn’t long before she realized that a career in languages wasn’t what she wanted. “That’s when I realized, ‘Wow, if I’m not thrilled doing this at a young age, I can’t imagine doing it for the duration,’” she said. But the career detour wasn’t quite the dead-end it seemed, and like so many other experiences in her life, she said it served as a lesson. “I decided before I do this again and end up in graduate school, I’m going to make sure I like what I’m doing,” she said. A job opening for paralegal work at an Arizona law firm piqued her interest so she applied. But she said her lack of a college degree in that field forced her to start her career in the legal field at the lowest rung of the ladder. “I worked as a file clerk doing the lowest level of activities — photocopies, taking messages, answering phones,” she said. At the same time, she enrolled in a two-year paralegal course. But she said she dropped the course and decided to seek a full law degree when she discovered it only required an additional year of courses. Soon after she set foot on her new career path, she said she knew it was the right one. “I took to it like a duck to water,” she said. “I loved every subject and had a natural affiliation. The way a lawyer thinks came very natural to me.” From Arizona, Reiss and her family traveled to Maine where she went to work as a law clerk for that state’s supreme court and in the office of Judge D. Brock Hornby, who continues to serve as one of her role models. During the course of her career, Reiss said she has tried to follow in the footsteps of a number of litigators and judges. But perhaps the figure most prominent in her development was the man she knew first — her father, the late St. Michael’s College professor John Reiss. In recalling her father, she remembers him using words such as “restrained,” “deliberative” and “thoughtful.” In her career as both a judge and a lawyer, she said she’s strived to emulate those characteristics. “One thing people will say about me is I’m fairly formal and serious on the bench,” she said. “I’ve never met a litigant who was happy and thought it was fun to be in a courtroom,” she said. “I want them to know that I take their cases as seriously as they do and that I’ll give it my complete concentration and focus.” Reiss’ serious approach is complemented by a number of life experiences that she said help her relate to the difficult positions many people find themselves in when they come to court. After four years in Maine, Reiss returned to Vermont and gave birth to her second daughter who was very sick at birth requiring months of intensive care and open heart surgery. At the same time, her marriage to her first husband was ending and she was holding down a job in a Burlington law firm where she quickly made partner. After her divorce, Reiss said she found herself in a difficult situation as a single-mother trying to balance the needs of her family and her sick daughter with the demands of her career. “I went through five years of that,” she said. “Looking back, it was a pretty magical time for us and it was strengthening for me. In family court, it really helped me to relate to other people about how things work out.” But Reiss also described that time as a low point in her life. “I cried for a whole year,” she said. “I don’t know that you can handle those things well. You just get through it.” Reiss said she got through it by segregating her professional and private lives — a practice she has followed to this day. “I have very good powers of concentration,” said Reiss who has since remarried and had a third daughter. “When I’m at work, I’m at work. When I’m at home. I’m at home.” After 12 years of working as a lawyer for two Burlington firms, Reiss applied for and was accepted to the Vermont bench as one of former Gov. James Douglas’ judicial appointments. “I ended up being Douglas’ only female appointment to the bench,” she said. “He was always supportive.” She said her decision to seek the bench was a natural progression of her interest in law. “Even in law school I was thinking of all the rules that I thought were most of interest,” she said. “I gravitated toward the role of judge.” For the next five years, Reiss served in the state courts presiding over criminal, civil and family court cases. In federal court, she doesn’t see the family cases, tenant-landlord disputes and a number of other kinds of cases she saw commonly in the state court system. But Reiss credited her time in the state system with preparing her for the role she has now. “It was fantastic. Indispensable,” she said. “I think it was really excellent preparation and a valuable experience.” She also learned to make tough decision while serving in the state courts — including a decision to dismiss a murder charge against former Burlington resident Kenneth Bailey, who police arrested in connection with a 34-year-old shooting. Despite evidence in the case that included testimony from the Bailey’s wife, Reiss decided that the loss of forensic evidence during the three decades before charges were brought in conjunction with the death of a number of other witnesses made a fair trial impossible in the case. Reiss said decisions like the one she made in Bailey’s case — which she said was proven right by the prosecutor’s decision to drop an appeal of her dismissal — are never easy to make, and should never be. “I think it should weigh on you. It should bother you. But it shouldn’t incapacitate you,” she said. “You need to be comfortable making the difficult decisions, not the popular ones.” Reiss said being popular isn’t what being a judge is all about and she scoffs at the notions of those who perceive judges in the mold of celebrity gavel wielders such as television personalities like Judge Judy and Judge Brown. A good judge, she said, is more like a good baseball umpire — making the right calls while hardly being noticed by those watching the game. That unobtrusive approach doesn’t always help a judicial candidate stand out when presidential nominations for federal judges become available. But in Reiss’s case it paid off. A self-described nonpolitical person, Reiss moved swiftly through the judicial nomination process, gaining the recommendation of Sen. Patrick Leahy and unanimous approval from the U.S. Senate. “I think I saw that as a strength,” Reiss said of her nonpolitical stance. “I was appointed by a Republican governor and recommended by a Democratic senator. ... It should have nothing to do with whether I went to this fundraiser or knew that person.” Her ascension to the federal bench also marked the first time in 219 years that a woman was selected to serve as one of Vermont’s two U.S. District Court judges. But while Reiss is aware of that distinction and the progress it represents, she said Vermont hasn’t lagged in gender equality in its courtrooms. “It’s a little surprising to me that it’s a big deal to other people,” she said. A recent publication said Vermont has more female judges than any other state in the country ... so the idea of a female federal judge isn’t that surprising.” After spending her first year as a federal judge working mostly out of the federal court in Burlington while renovations were done to the courthouse in Rutland, Reiss is now sitting full-time in Rutland where she said she plans to stay for a long time — but, perhaps, not until retirement. Asked if she thinks about one day serving on a higher court, Reiss said she has always been interested in advancing her legal skills to the greatest potential. But in a legal world where judicial advancements are often blocked by the lifetime tenure of other judges, Reiss said she’s not setting her sight on specific courts. “Becoming a judge is not necessarily in one’s power to decide,” she said. “I always want to go as high as I can in my profession, but I’m not going to worry about things that are out of my hands.” @Tagline:brent.curtis

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