Justice Robert Larrow and His Legacy
By Paul S. Gillies, Esq.
It was the beginning of March 1974, the last time the legislature would elect a Justice of the Supreme Court. The 1974 amendments to the Vermont Constitution would soon require judges and justices to be chosen by the Governor, after nomination by the new Judicial Nominating Board. But for one more time, the legislature would elect a Justice of the Supreme Court.
Chief Superior Judge, the most senior of the civil judges,
William Hill expected he would be elevated to the high court.
With the exception of 1914-1915, that had been the rule for
The legislature had elected Hill to the Superior bench in 1959. He had seven years of seniority over Judge Robert Larrow, who had been appointed a Superior Judge in 1966 by Governor Philip Hoff, and then elected to consecutive two-year terms by the legislature. Franklin Billings, Jr. was the third most senior Superior Court Judge, appointed by Hoff to the civil trial bench in December of 1966.
did not hold in March of 1974. Judge Robert Larrow won the
race in the legislature. The vote was Larrow 89 to Hill 82.
The Burlington Free Press explained that Larrow had
the solid support of the Democrats, joined by a “loose
coalition of conservative Republicans, led by Speaker
The Court in 1974 consisted of Chief Justice Albert Barney, Milford K. Smith. F. Ray Keyser, Sr., Rudolph J. Daley, and newly-elected Robert Larrow. Justice Keyser retired on June 1, 1975, and Franklin S. Billings, Jr. was appointed by Governor Thomas Salmon to fill the vacancy, another breach of tradition. Justice Smith retired on April 30, 1976 and at last William Hill was appointed a Supreme Court Justice, a second Salmon appointment.
The court remained intact for more than four years until October 31, 1980, when Justice Daley retired, and Governor Richard Snelling appointed Wynn Underwood to replace him on the high court. The next year, effective August 31, 1981, Justice Larrow retired. Governor Snelling appointed Louis P. Peck in his stead. Justice Hill re-tired April 1, 1987.
Justice Larrow served a total of 15 years and three months as a judge or justice, including seven years and six months on the high court. Justices Larrow and Hill’s tenures overlapped for five and a half years.
In the summer 2019 issue of the Vermont Bar Journal, an essay entitled “Politics and the Court” attempted to define what constitutes a conservative judge, and to investigate whether the Chief Justice Sherman Moulton’s Republican politics showed through in his published opinions. This month, we look at the same question from the left, using the works of Justice Robert Larrow Could we lift the veil and see the political heart of this judge?
Robert Larrow was not a Republican. He was a determined Democrat, with a long history of involvement in statewide political campaigns both as a candidate and as a spokesman for the party. He had run for Governor at the unripe age of 37 in 1952 against Republican Lee Emerson and won nearly forty percent of the votes, more than any Democrat in Vermont history had ever earned. He had run for other offices after that, never prevailing, but always making the races competitive. His campaigns helped inspire his minority party to turn it-self into a majority party, solidified by the elections of William Meyer in 1958 as U.S. Representative and Philip Hoff’s gubernatorial victory in 1962.
was the second Democrat to be elected or appointed to the
high court. The first was Isaac Fletcher Redfield, who served
on the court from 1835 to 1860, the last twelve years as
Larrow was born in Vergennes, on April 27, 1915, attended
local schools, later earned a B.A. from Holy Cross College
(1936) and an LL.B. from Harvard Law (1939). His first
political race was for Burlington City Attorney, won in 1944,
beating Theodore F. Hopkins, a Republican who had held the
post for 23 years.
had a sharp wit. In his race against Emerson in 1952, he
criticized the Republican leadership for its allegiance to
the Proctor Marble Company. “When the dog barks in
Proctor,” he said, “the tail wags in
In 1954, he publicly defended his party, while giving an elbow to the Republicans. He charged Republicans with “100 years” of “drifting and dreaming.” He agreed with the criticism that Democrats were a “party of malcontents.” He said, “Of course we are not content. We are discontented with decade after decade of state government without leadership.”
he said, were keeping Vermont “at least one, and
probably two, decades behind the progress of its sister
states.” He predicted the end of Republican rule.
“The people of Vermont are Republicans not by prejudice
or bias, but by habit. That habit can be broken. Perhaps not
overnight, but it can be broken and we w ill break
1962, he said, “One-party rule leads to nothing but
stagnation.” He argued that 106 years of “heel
dragging and a reluctance to institute needed measures of
reform” was enough.
he was appointed to the bench in 1966, Robert Larrow was not
active in the Democratic Party. Becoming a judge meant being
shorn of party politics, at least publicly. Upon his
retirement, in the summer of 1981, The Brattleboro
Reformer reported Larrow was “noted for his
intellectual contributions to the high court.” Chief
Justice Barney praised “his matchless intellectual
contribution to the content of law, both in his own opinions
and in his comments on those of the rest of us.” The
reporter wrote how some “have viewed Larrow as one of
the most liberal members on the bench, but [the Chief
Justice] said there is little difference in political
philosophy among the jurists.” Governor Snelling
praised him, saving, “He has compiled an impressive
record as a jurist both on the Superior and Supreme court
benches. All the people of Vermont are indebted to
At the time of his retirement, Justice Larrow gave an interview with Professor Samuel Hand. He was asked why he ran for an office in 1952, taking “the nomination in the sense that you would not be merely a token candidate but someone who would campaign actively and apparently make a genuine effort to win, although I suspect you knew you weren’t going to win?” Larrow answered, “Well, I guess one reason would be personal. That’s the way I do things generally. I get into them; I really get in.”
interview, Justice Larrow defined what it meant to be a
liberal, describing Harland Howe, a Democrat candidate for
Governor in 1912 and later a Superior judge. Howe was a
liberal, he said, “in the sense that he was completely
devoted to the cause of the little man, both on the bench and
Would that label apply to Justice Larrow? Let’s look at what he wrote.
Justice Larrow wrote more than 250 decisions in his seven years on the Court. In retirement, he returned (specially assigned) to sit on approximately a hundred more cases, the last of them in 1986, and wrote another half dozen opinions. There is no question about who wrote a Larrow decision. His voice is present in every opinion.
Dissenting and Concurring
A justice speaks personally through a dissenting or concurring...