The Centennial of 111 State Street The Home of the Vermont Supreme Court
Paul S. Gillies, Esq.
When the first settlers came to Montpelier, they found the grounds later to be used as the site of the three successive State Capitols and the Supreme Court building covered with tall maple trees. This meadow was pitched by Jacob Davis, and cleared by Jacob and his sons, in 1787. Jacob, who was the first permanent settler, was reputed to have the strength and stamina to clear an acre of land of trees, cut to log lengths, in a day, by himself, and continue the same for many days in a row. Once the meadow was cleared, the land produced four hundred bushels of potatoes a year. Jacob grew ten years of Indian corn on that land, without a shovelful of manure. One year he planted wheat, and reaped eighty bushels per acre, all of superior quality.1
Jacob Davis had an idea this meadow would be an ideal spot for the seat of government, long before Montpelier was chosen as the capital city in 1805. That year, Thomas Davis, Jacob’s son, donated the land to the use of the State. State Street was laid out and the first Pavilion Hotel was built by Thomas to serve the needs of legislators shortly before the first State House was completed and occupied in 1808. The first capitol was an octangular wooden structure, located to the west of the Pavilion, sited twelve rods back from State Street and about the same distance from the back of
The Supreme Court was created by the 1777 Constitution. Moses Robinson, the first Chief Judge, and the other four Associate Judges, started hearing cases in 1778, using the county courthouses in the shire towns as their temporary homes, first at the Westminster courthouse and the Catamount Tavern in Bennington, and later, as the counties grew, on a grand tour that took the judges to fifteen different shire towns, at times twice a year, to conduct the court’s business. Not until the State House annex was constructed in 1888 was there a place the high court could call its home.
The 1786 Constitution first established the principle of separation of powers of the three branches of state government. Physical separation was not what was intended, although the Capitol housed the legislative and executive branches from 1808, leaving the judicial branch to move week by week throughout the state, before the three branches were at last joined together in 1888. The present legislative lounge, that long room on the west side of the Capitol, with the elegant fireplace, and the rooms northerly of the courtroom, served the court for nearly 30 years before the legislature finally voted to erect a building to reduce the overcrowding at the State House. That project did not come to fruition without controversy.
The State House was the first building constructed by the State of Vermont. A year later, the State Prison was erected at Windsor. Montpelier paid for the first State House.3 The State raised a special tax of one cent on a dollar of each acre of land in the state to pay for the prison. The early legislatures were suspicious of public debt. But the State’s needs continued to grow, as government expanded into new areas of regulation and services.
The sum of $36,000 was appropriated to construct a separate building for the State Library, Supreme Court, and the Vermont Historical Society in 1884.4 The committee assigned to oversee the construction decided to expand the Capitol instead. The Annex was constructed in 1886-1888, and the Supreme Court first held its sessions in the new west wing of the State House in 1888.5
According to Thomas Valentine Cooper, in 1883 Vermont had no State debt, except $131,000 in bonds for the Agricultural College.6 In 1919, the state’s debt had grown to $1,580,787, including bonds for the Agricultural College, School Fund, and for public buildings ($170,000), among others. Those public buildings bonds were issued in 1917 and were due for repayment by 1935.7
By 1914, there were a few properties owned by the State other than the State House. There was the Vermont Reform School in Vergennes (established in 1837; renamed the Vermont Industrial School in 1900 and the Weeks School in 1937); the Vermont State School for the Feeble-Minded (authorized 1912, constructed 1915; renamed the Brandon Training School in 1929); and the Waterbury State Hospital, established in 1891. The new Supreme Court, State Library, and Vermont Historical Society building was the second structure to be built to serve the needs of the State in Montpelier, after the State Houses. Today, state buildings ring the capitol grounds.
The legislature’s special committee to study the space needs of government reported in 1915 that a separate building was the answer, as any additional increase in the size of the Capitol would destroy the beauty of the present building. The State House was crowded. The Secretary of State had one room, 18’ square, and its stenographer had to work inside the vault. Thousands of volumes of the State Library had to be stored away for lack of display space.8 The Treasurer had to use the window sills of the main hallway of the building for meetings. There were 65 Senate and House Committees in 1915, and only six or seven hearing rooms to accommodate them. There were occasions when three or four committees would meet in the Senate chambers at the same time. The treasures of the Vermont Historical Society were “stored in old-shoe-boxes and in case of fire would be lost forever to the state.”
The Supreme Court courtroom was too small and so were the Justices’ quarters. The committee reported, “The judges’ chamber is so small that they can all shake hands with each other without leaving their chairs. The consultation of the judges on cases heard is held in a bed room at the Pavilion and the lack of consultation room or rooms in connection with the state library is one of the chief reasons for the delay of decisions.”
The committee recommended $200,000 for alterations of the State House, and the construction of a separate building for the VHS, State Library, and Supreme Court, “confident that the proposed act submitted herewith will not involve burdensome taxation and will not greatly add to the biennial appropriation.”9
These were perilous times. The world was at war. Vermonters were in Europe, fighting the War to End All Wars. Woodrow Wilson was President. Horace Graham was Governor. The world was changing rapidly. Daylight savings time began on March 31, 1918. The first report of the devastating flu in the United States was published that month. That July, Czar Nicholas II, the Czarina, and their children were killed. The Armistice was signed November 11. In April of 1918, the first telephone service was installed at the State House, with two trunk lines.10
It had been only three years since the Vermont Supreme Court had suffered a crisis of authority.
While the political process for erecting its new home proceeded, the Vermont Supreme Court suffered a shock to the system. For most of the state’s history, with very few exceptions, the legislature had respected a seniority system for the election of judges. Judges and Justices who indicated a willingness to continue in office were reelected year after year, biennium after biennium, replacing those who died or retired by moving each remaining judge up the rank until it was his turn to serve as Chief Judge. In 1912, the Court consisted of Chief Judge John Rowell, Loveland Munson, John H. Watson, Seneca Haselton, and George M. Powers. Chief Judge John Rowell retired on September 30, 1913, and Governor Allen Fletcher appointed George M. Powers to replace him as Chief, rather than Love-land Munson, who would have taken the first chair by order of seniority.
The constitutional amendments of 1913 changed the opening date of the legislature from October to January, and made provision for the holding over of terms that ended under the old system on the last day of November, 1914 until a new election could be held. The Supreme Court doubted the effectiveness of this transitional provision. To avoid any question of the court’s legitimacy, the entire court resigned effective November 30, 1914. No one expected Governor Allen Fletcher to change the constituency of the court, but after he reappointed Powers, Watson, and William H. Taylor, he passed over Chief Judge Loveland Munson and Seneca Haselton and named Robert Healy and Leighton Slack instead, advancing Powers to Chief Justice.11 This was not received well.
In his December 1914 appointments, Fletcher’s actions created a storm of protest. The annual meeting of the Vermont Bar Association was...