A pioneer in shaping the litigation and legislative strategy behind same-sex marriage, Beth Robinson made history in 2011 as the first openly LGBT Justice on the Vermont Supreme Court. She is now poised to make history again as the first openly LGBT judge on the Second Circuit.
Born March 6, 1965, Beth Robinson graduated from Dartmouth College in 1986 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1989. After graduating, Robinson clerked for Judge David Sentelle on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then joined the D.C. Office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as an associate.
In 1993, Robinson joined Langrock Sperry & Wool in Vermont. In 2010, newly elected Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin chose Robinson to be his counsel. A year later, Shumlin named Robinson to the Vermont Supreme Court, where she currently serves.
History of the Seat
Robinson has been nominated for a Vermont seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. This seat was vacated by Judge Peter Hall, who moved to senior status on March 4, 2021 (Hall tragically passed away shortly after).
Robinson spent most of her career in private practice, although she did spend a few months as Counsel for Gov. Peter Shumlin before he appointed her to the Supreme Court.
Notably, while in private practice, Robinson was instrumental in shaping the legislative and litigation strategy to bring marriage equality to Vermont. In 1999, Robinson successfully argued before the Vermont Supreme Court that the Vermont Constitution prohibited restricting same-sex couples from the benefits of marriage. Baker v. State, 744 A.2d 864 (Vt. 1999). Robinson continued her work as an advocate for same-sex marriage on the legislative front throughout the 2000s until she was tapped by Shumlin. See, e.g., John Curran, In Vermont, Gay Marriage Debate Keeping It Civil, A.P. State * Local Wire, Jan. 13, 2008.
Robinson has served on the Vermont Supreme Court for the past decade. Her record on the bench is generally liberal but within the Court’s mainstream. Below, we have summarized some of the key features of her jurisprudence:
Negligence and Civil Liability
On the bench, Robinson has generally read civil liability broadly to allow matters to reach a jury. For example, in 2013, Robinson wrote for a unanimous court in finding that summary judgment should not have been granted to an insurer over an accident caused by a permittee to whom the insured owner loaned the car. See State Farm Mutual Automobile Co. v. Colby, 2013 VT 80.
Robinson has also read criminal procedural protections broadly, cabining prosecutions. For example, she wrote for the court in holding that the mere fact of a motorist stopping his car in a remote location did not create grounds for a trooper to make a traffic stop. State v. Button, 2013 VT 92. Robinson also overturned Shamel Alexander’s conviction for heroin trafficking, finding that law enforcement violated Alexander’s Fourth Amendment rights in stopping and searching him. Vermont v. Alexander, 2016 VT 19.
Robinson has generally read criminal statutes narrowly. For example, Robinson wrote for a divided 3-2 court in overturning a man’s conviction of harassment, holding that Vermont law required threats of violence in order for conduct to qualify under the statute. State v. Waters, 2013 VT 109. Robinson also wrote for the court in throwing out a state prisoner’s conviction for illegally practicing law after she assisted other inmates with filing legal claims. In re Serendipity Morales, 2016 VT 85.
Furthermore, Robinson dissented from the Supreme Court’s 3-2 decision upholding Justin Kuzawski’s conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, writing that, in her view, the safety boxcutter that Kuzawski brandished did not qualify under the statute. See State v. Kuzawski, 2017 VT 118. She was also part of a panel that held that Jack Sawyer, accused of planning a school shooting, could not be held without bail. See Sadie Housberg, VT Supreme Court: Sawyer Cannot Be Held Without Bail, Middlebury Campus, Apr. 18, 2018.
In contrast, Robinson upheld Latonia Congress’ conviction for murder, finding that the trial judge was correct in declining to instruct the jury that they could reduce the charge to voluntary manslaughter. State v. Congress, 2014 VT 129. Chief Justice Paul Reiber dissented, arguing that common law retained the discretion to reduce such charges in the jury. See id. Robinson also dissented from a decision tossing a conviction for posting KKK recruitment posters on the apartment doors of black women. See State v. Schenk, 2018 VT 45. Notably, Robinson wrote for a 4-1 court (with Chief Justice Marilyn Skoglund in dissent) upholding Vermont’s revenge porn law against a constitutional challenge. State v. Van Buren, 2018 VT 95.
Writings and Statements
Given her prominence in the marriage equality fight in Vermont, Robinson has spoken and written a number of times regarding the issue. For example, in 2009, Robinson moderated a panel at Dartmouth College on the subject, where she noted that she was working on the issue’s legal strategy as early as 1994. See Same-Sex Marriage in Law and Society: Dartmouth College’s Law Day Program 2009: Transcript of Law Day Panel, 34 Vt. L. Rev. 243 (Winter 2009). She also participated in a symposium on marriage law for the Michigan Journal of Gender & Law. See 10 Mich. J. Gender & L 21, 27 (2003). Her remarks have (understandably) been strongly supportive of marriage equality. For example, in a speech at Seton Hall Law School, Robinson noted the impact of laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation:
“The law also tells a story…Before July 1, 2000, the story told by the laws of every state in this country was that committed, loving same-sex couples don’t exist, or if we do, our relationships have no value, and aren’t worthy of equal treatment under the law.” Beth Robinson, The Road to Inclusion for Same-Sex Couples: Lessons From Vermont, 11 Seton Hall Const. L. J. 237 (Spring 2001).
Robinson has also worked on the legislative battle for same-sex marriage, speaking out against bills to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. See Bill Would Define Marriage as Union of Man and Woman, A.P. State & Local Wire, Mar. 10, 1999. Robinson also advocated in favor of Vermont’s civil union bill, see Ross Sneyd, Sweeping Civil Union Bill Passes; Governor Will Sign It Into Law, A.P. State & Local Wire, Apr. 25, 2000, and later, Vermont’s gay marriage law. See John Curran, In Vermont, Gay Marriage Debate Keeping It Civil, A.P. State * Local Wire, Jan. 13, 2008.
Not all of Robinson’s writings have focused on the issue of same-sex marriage. In 1999, Robinson authored an article discussing negligence law affecting skiers injured on the slopes, and noting that Vermont caselaw generally leaves releases of liability unenforceable as a matter of public policy. See Beth Robinson, Playing it Safe: Allocating the Risk of Harm on the Slopes, 25 Ver. B. J. 15 (Mar. 1999).
With a decade of experience on Vermont’s highest court and more than two decades in litigation, Robinson will likely be deemed to be qualified for a seat on the Second Circuit. However, her advocacy on the same-sex marriage front, as well as her left-leaning record on the Supreme Court, may make her a controversial nominee to some senators. Nonetheless, there is little in Robinson’s record that would cause Democratic support to vanish, and, as such, her nomination will likely be confirmed by the end of the year.