Book Reviews, 18 VTBJ, Fall 2018-#44

AuthorJames J. Dunn, Esq. Reviewed by Mary C. Ashcroft, Esq.
PositionVol. 44 3 Pg. 44


Vol. 44 No. 3 Pg. 44

Vermont Bar Journal

Fall, 2018

Breach of Trust

James J. Dunn, Esq. Reviewed by Mary C. Ashcroft, Esq.

It was the cast of characters in the front of the book that caught my attention—eighty-nine in all. These were Vermont’s legal and political “names” during the 1980’s when I was a young lawyer just starting my practice: Fred Allen, Bill Hill, Ernest Gibson, Jeff Amestoy, John Dooley, John Easton, Madeleine Kunin, Tom Salmon, among others. They were all listed because their paths had crossed, for better or for worse, with that of Jane Wheel.

This book is about the rise and fall of Chittenden County Assistant Judge Jane Wheel, who was elected to that position in 1974 and held power until her ouster by voters in 1986. Mr. Dunn’s meticulous research sheds light into dim corners of Wheel’s courthouse intrigues and careful cultivation of friend-ships useful to her. Her connections with Justices Thomas Hayes, Ernest Gibson and especially William Hill led to Hill’s resignation, a cloud on Hayes’s name at his death, and eventual vindication of Gibson. It shook the foundations of our Supreme Court and of our state’s legal system.

Don’t skip the introduction -- Dunn opens the slim volume with his view into Wheel’s world through the lens of his legal attempts to prevent the demolition of the Chittenden County Courthouse. Wheel was on the other side. Wheel won. But how she won frames the story of her abuse of power and the breach of trust exhibited by Supreme Court Justices, judges and others who could not or would not stand up to her perversions of justice.

Don’t skip the appendices either—they are a rare look into letters, affidavits, memos and a legal ruling central to the process of justice. And most have the typographical errors and authentic signatures of Vermont’s pre-computerized legal world.

Attorney James Dunn packs the pages in between with a brisk, detailed narrative describing Wheel’s power-brokering. He tells of the side judge sitting on cases in which she had conflicts, building her empire of side judges, using court funds for a judicial party, changing docket entries on court files, and punishing those who disagreed with her or tried to stop her. And the pervasive theme-using her friendship with judges and justices to get her way.

This is the story of how the Vermont legal system first failed its citizens, and then corrected itself to bring justice to those who abused power.

Dunn delves into the courtroom drama of Wheel’s perjury trial and the Judicial Conduct Board’s review of inappropriate conduct of Justice William Hill. The author takes the time to explain the history of assistant judges and to define interlocutory appeals, temporary injunctions, a “rump” Supreme Court and much more. He highlights the determination of young lawyers like David Sun-tag and Susan Harritt, and the wily lawyering of veteran Leonard Wing.

This book is a good read. It’s a treat for the Vermont historian and for those of a certain age who remember the personalities of the 1980’s. It will appeal to lawyers who appreciate good lawyering and deft legal tactics. The curious layperson will enjoy the book too, as legal strategy and arcane rules of court are described in understandable, un-condescending terms. And for all Vermonters who value honest government, there are heroes and villains--and the heroes win.

A good read and a keeper -- I’m putting this book on my bookshelf next to publications about the Irasburg affair and the Paul Lawrence scandal. If you don’t know what I mean by either, read about them...

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