Home Vermont With Welch in chair, smooth sailing for appointee for VT federal judge

With Welch in chair, smooth sailing for appointee for VT federal judge

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By Mike Donoghue

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney Mary Kay Lanthier of Orwell found smooth sailing when she appeared Thursday for her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to become the next federal judge in Vermont.

President Joe Biden announced last month that he was nominating Lanthier to fill the seat of Geoffrey W. Crawford, currently the chief federal judge for Vermont. 

Her name was advanced by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Peter Welch, D-Vt. last month, after three other recommendations by a screening committee of Democrats and Progressives, were all put on a back burner earlier this spring.

Lanthier, 53, has been the supervisory attorney for the Rutland County Public Defender’s Office since 2007.

Welch chaired the whole hearing in the absence of Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, the regular chair, who missed a large part of the session.

Lanthier was one of four women scheduled Thursday morning for the judicial confirmation hearing – two for the circuit court of appeals and two for district court judgeships.

There were considerable partisan fireworks for the two nominations to sit on the appeals courts, but not much for the two district judgeships.  The Republicans wanted more than 5 minutes per senator, or a chance for a second round of questions.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. had questioned how the White House could nominate a person to be a judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals without ever consulting with the Senators in Tennessee.  She said it marked the fourth time the Biden White House had ignored the longstanding tradition of consulting with the home senators.

She noted the U.S. Constitution requires that the Senate “advise and consent” on judicial appointments when nominated by a President.  She said it was missing again this time and warned senators what it would mean going forward on other nominations.

Only four of the 11 Democrats on the committee stayed long enough to quiz the two Biden nominees for the appeals courts.  Seven of the 10 Republicans were present to quiz them.  At one point a Republican senator noted that one of the judges for the appeals court had given 5 different answers to the same question.

By the time Lanthier had her time at the witness table at the end of the hearing, there were only two senators left in the room, including Welch, when it ended.

The second member, Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisianna, seemed to enjoy chatting more with Lanthier’s daughter, and jokingly asking her if she had any questions that her mother should be asked.

Durbin, a lawyer, had stopped for Lanthier’s hearing long enough to say he was impressed that Lanthier had taken 50 criminal cases to trial.

“Fifty cases to a jury verdict, hope you’re getting ready to write a book about it,” Durgin stated. “Tell me about that experience, what’s been your biggest surprise when it comes to jury response?”

Lanthier said she was amazed by the dedication jurors put into their work resolving each case.

Lanthier was in the spotlight for only about 10 minutes out of the two hours that the hearing lasted.  She did not have any hardball questions asked, or ones often asked of other candidates.

She was never even asked some routine questions directed at other candidates, including about her lack of experience in federal courts. 

Lanthier wrote on her application that 100 percent of her time as a lawyer has been spent in state courts.  Lanthier also was never asked about the selection process and her ending up as at least the fourth choice of the controversial screening committee created by Sen. Sanders.

Lanthier could see her name come up for a vote soon by the committee, while some of the other three candidates could be invited back for more questions.  If eventually ratified by the committee, Lanthier must be approved by the full senate.

If approved by the U.S. Senate, Lanthier would be based at the federal courthouse at 151 West Street in Rutland.  The title of chief federal judge will pass from Crawford back to the other fulltime district judge, Christina Reiss in Burlington, in July.  She had previously held the post from 2010 to 2017.

The annual pay for federal district court judges was bumped this year from $232,600 to $243,300.

The four candidates were introduced Thursday, given a chance to speak and answer questions from committee members.    

Lanthier, who has dodged the Vermont news media since her name first surfaced as a candidate, said besides her family, Vermont Supreme Court Associate Justice William Cohen of Rutland had accompanied her to Washington.  Cohen of Rutland, was a state trial judge for 20 years before Gov. Phil Scott elevated him to the Vermont Supreme Court in 2019.  

The hearing in Washington, D.C. marked the first public discussion of Lanthier’s nomination.  There has been no chance for the public to weigh in during any hearing in Vermont.

At one point in the Washington hearing, Lanthier’s voice appeared to crack, and she apologized, noting the day was more emotional than expected. 

Lanthier also had a half dozen letters of support from state prosecutors, the Defender General, a former longtime Rutland County police chief, a retired state judge and the president of the Vermont Bar Association.

One letter also came from the American College of Trial Lawyers and signed by Vermont Chapter Chair Michael Desautels, the Chief Federal Defender in Vermont and past Chapter Chair Ritchie E. Berger of Burlington.  Lanthier is also a past chair for the group.

It was co-signed by two dozen other members, including retired Judge Robert Mello, Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver and Burlington lawyers Robert Hemley, Kurt Hughes, John and Chris Maley, Karen McAndrew,  Thomas E. McCormick and Alan Sylvester. 

Rutland lawyers David Cleary R. Joseph O’Rourke and John Zawistoski also signed on.

It noted that while both current sitting federal district court judges – Crawford and Reiss – are former state judges, now Senior Federal Judge William K. Sessions III had no experience as a judge before being picked by then-U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.  Sessions, like Lanthier, had done public defender work and he turned out to be a top notch federal judge, the Desautels/Berger letter said.

“Vermont has been very fortunate in that we have a history of extremely competent and fair Federal District Judges,” they wrote.

“All of them share certain traits: they work hard, they treat litigants and counsel fairly and with respect, and they continually see to improve,” they wrote.  The letter signers said they believe Lanthier will follow in those footsteps.

A joint letter was sent by Rutland County State’s Attorney Ian Sullivan and Windsor County State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough and two Rutland deputy prosecutors.  Goodenough is a former Rutland County deputy state’s attorney in 2015-16.

They noted that besides the day-to-day in court defense work, Lanthier has worked to improve operations of the court and offer training to members of the bar and police officers.

Former Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell, who is now the acting head of the Vermont Police Academy, said Lanthier has earned the respect of judges, police and lawyers.  He said Lanthier has volunteered her time to help train police and conduct a “mock trial.”   Brickell said she has compassion, integrity and patience that will help her as a judge.

Welch had cited the Brickell letter in his remarks.

Retired state Judge Theresa DiMauro said Lanthier is well known by the judges for her research and writing skills, along with her professionalism and courtroom skills.  She said Lanthier handled every kind of case up to and including homicides.

Defender General Matthew F. Valerio, in a 3-page letter, praised the career path and work Lanthier has done.  He said he has often called on Lanthier to fill committee positions created by the Vermont legislature, the Vermont Supreme Court or the Executive Branch.  He said she was the “go to” person whether it was on substantive law, rules and ethical issues.

Valerio, who said he has known Lanthier for more than 23 years, noted he also has gotten to know Lanthier as a mother and baseball fan as their sons played on the same American Legion baseball team. 

Vermont News First had reported in May that Lanthier had recently moved to the head of the line to replace Crawford, who is shifting to “Senior Status” this summer.  That is like semi-retirement because he is allowed to limit how many cases he is assigned by the clerk’s office.

Three other lawyers that had been proposed for the judgeship in January by the screening committee were put on the back burner this spring without explanation, while the FBI and Department of Justice vetted Lanthier, Vermont News First reported.

They were Assistant Federal Defender Steven L. Barth, Vermont Law School Professor Jessica C. Brown and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Drescher.

Vermont News First had reported in March that Barth, Brown and Drescher were the top picks by a special screening committee.  A few days later Lanthier got an interview with the chief of staff for Sanders, records show.

The screening panel Sanders helped set up for the Vermont judgeship has come under fire from lawyers, courthouse personnel and the public.  Three of the seven lawyers selected by Sanders for the screening have never had a single case in federal court in Vermont and a fourth had less than a dozen cases in Vermont over the years.   

Biden, before being sworn in, had made clear he wanted to appoint women, public defenders, people of color and other minorities to the bench.  That appears to have left the two old white men on the wrong end for the White House. 

Welch was named to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year to replace Vermont’s former senior senator, Patrick J. Leahy, a longtime member of the powerful panel.  It will be up to Welch to help ramrod the Lanthier nomination through. 

The Democrats have an 11-10 edge over the Republicans on the judiciary committee.  That edge can be critical as Biden is trying to push through as many judicial appointments as possible before the General Election in November in case he loses the White House. 

Lanthier began her legal career as a judicial law clerk for the trial courts in Chittenden County and Addison County from 1996 to 1998. 

She was an associate at Keiner & Dumont law firm in Middlebury from 1998 to 2000 before becoming a public defender representing indigent people charged in Addison County from 2000 to 2003.

Lanthier was hired as an associate and later promoted to partner in the law firm Marsh & Wagner in Middlebury from 2003 to 2007 before taking her state job in Rutland County.

Besides criminal law, Lanthier had worked primarily on family law and workers’ compensation cases.

About half the work on the federal docket involves criminal cases.  The other half is civil – a mixture that includes a wide range of cases ranging from civil rights to employment discrimination to contract disputes and more.

She has applied to be a Vermont Superior Court judge in recent years, friends said.  It is unclear how many times her name went to the Vermont Governor, who makes those state appointments.

Lanthier received her undergraduate degree from Amherst College in 1993 and her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in 1996. She taught either one or two evidence labs each spring semester between 2017 and 2023 at Vermont Law and Graduate School.

She serves as the treasurer for the Vermont Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The post With Welch in chair, smooth sailing for appointee for VT federal judge first appeared on Vermont Daily Chronicle.

The post With Welch in chair, smooth sailing for appointee for VT federal judge appeared first on Vermont Daily Chronicle.

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