A personal and historic milestone

Karen Russell Carroll of Vernon is sworn in as newest Vermont Supreme Court member

Judge Karen Russell Carroll took the oath of office Wednesday to the Vermont Supreme Court, marking the first time the state's highest court has had a majority of female justices.

Chief Justice Paul Reiber praised Carroll for her ability to relate to people - and for being a Red Sox fan. Gov. Phil Scott, who nominated Carroll, said the veteran trial court judge possesses the qualities he required: character, competence, commitment, and chemistry.

Scott said he wanted to make clear he didn't select Carroll because she is a woman, but added “to ignore the significance of this appointment would be unfair.”

“To all the young women and men watching us and learning from us, achieving success really is about hard work, about putting in the long hours, the sleepless nights and making those difficult decisions. Success is not something you're handed, it's something you earn,” Scott told the standing-room audience inside the court's chambers.

“It's something that any one of us can achieve if we put the needs of others first,” he said.

Carroll, 54, was confirmed unanimously by the Vermont Senate. Her appointment followed a controversy where former Gov. Peter Shumlin tried to name someone to the seat before he left office in January but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court, which said it was Scott's slot to fill. Scott selected Carroll from a list of eight “strong and talented” candidates submitted by the Judicial Nominating Board.

'Ecstatic and excited'

Carroll said she was “ecstatic and excited” about her new position, while she simultaneously celebrated and downplayed the significance of her appointment, focusing more on the importance of judicial experience to join the high court.

“I think it's wonderful that this court has three female justices. But if a trial judge was a man who was appointed, I would have been as happy for that person as well,” Carroll said. “So I think it's a milestone, but it's not something I find a necessity.”

Carroll succeeds Justice John Dooley, who stepped down after almost 30 years on the Supreme Court. A lawyer and high-ranking member of the Kunin administration, Dooley never served as a trial court judge prior to his appointment. Believed to be the longest-serving Vermont Supreme Court justice, Dooley announced last year he wouldn't seek reappointment when his term expired in April.

Carroll joins Justices Marilyn Skoglund and Beth Robinson, along with Reiber and Justice Harold “Duke” Eaton, on the five-member court.

“I hope to bring with me what I think I added to the trial court bench, which was a fair, unbiased perspective and interpretation of the law. And have the state of Vermont see I will uphold the law in a fair and impartial way,” Carroll said when asked what her goals were.

In remarks to the audience, she grew emotional thanking her family and others who helped her along the way.

A onetime prosecutor, Carroll had been a Superior Court judge since 2000, presiding over courts in Windham, Windsor, and Bennington counties. She was the first presiding judge in Vermont's only DUI Treatment Court, in Windsor County, which she called the highlight of her career - despite the honor she had received moments before.

“I really do like to connect with people,” she explained about the appeal of the treatment court. That job, she said, required “intimate discussions about what they'd done and what they failed to do and the struggles” they were having.

Punctuality, precision, preparation

Carroll, a native Vermonter who lives in Vernon, said the state's current problem with opiate abuse is having a profound effect on children of addicts, many of whom are being removed from homes. She said more treatment programs were clearly needed.

Eaton, who served as a judge alongside Carroll in Windsor County, applauded her willingness to help out and for being “fun, friendly, and very competent.”

Reiber said a new appointment offers the court a chance at self-examination. He praised Carroll for having the important qualities a judge needs: punctuality, precision, and preparation.

“What is important is to always be curious, always searching for the right answer,” Reiber said, as well as the importance of maintaining the public's confidence as “impartial guardians of the law.”

“It is our job to apply the law as written, not as we would like the law to be written,” Reiber said.

Carroll, originally appointed to the bench by Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, said she has no political agenda.

“I don't think I have a philosophy that way,” she said. “I think I make judgments on issues based on my experience and the law.”

She agreed her new job marked a transition from a trial judge deciding issues in a case to the “Monday-morning quarterbacking” of an appellate judge determining whether the trial judge erred.

Carroll had a controversial case as a trial judge. In 2010, three of the five justices on the Supreme Court said she had violated rules of evidence “with significant detriment to the court's appearance of impartiality.”

The judgment came on a case that had been delayed due to the defendant's health. Some believed Randall J. Gokey was malingering. After he was convicted, an appeal questioned whether Carroll acted properly when she reached out to a pharmacist and to guards involved in the transportation of the defendant for information about his health.

Carroll graduated from Proctor High School and from Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I., with a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in criminal justice and English and French literature. She earned her Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Vermont Law School in 1988.

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