Justice Served: Marilyn Skoglund to Retire From the Vermont Supreme Court | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Justice Served: Marilyn Skoglund to Retire From the Vermont Supreme Court


Published May 1, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

Marilyn Skoglund - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Marilyn Skoglund

On her way out the door of her Montpelier home last Friday, Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund rolled up her right sleeve to show off her latest tattoo.

"I waited until my youngest daughter's wedding," the justice said with a sneaky smile. "I knew she wouldn't want me to get it."

Written in a simple black cursive on the inside of her arm were the words, "Jag är mätt," a Swedish expression often uttered in her childhood home at the conclusion of a family meal. "I am satisfied," she translated. "I am full."

The 72-year-old jurist reflected for a moment — perhaps on a life rich in family, friends, dogs and the law — and declared, "I am satisfied! I mean, what else can you say? I'm very lucky. I am satisfied."

This week, Skoglund plans to inform Gov. Phil Scott that, after 22 years on the state's highest court, she intends to resign effective September 1.

Skoglund's retirement brings to a close one of the most remarkable and least likely careers in the Vermont judiciary — that of a struggling single mother who passed the bar without a day of law school and worked her way up to become the second female justice in state history.

Now, the famously irreverent attorney is looking for a new challenge, be it the beginning Spanish class she plans to take this fall or the online bartender course she's long contemplated.

"I just need to take a chance and see what else I can do before I drop dead," she said, letting loose her trademark cackle.

Skoglund's sense of humor has long served as the "collegiality glue" on the court of five, according to retired justice John Dooley. In her decades on the bench, she has made it her mission to draw colleagues and staff members out of their casework and into the world — through court poetry slams, end-of-term parties and art openings at the Supreme Court gallery she founded and oversees.

"I would describe her as a unifier," said Victoria Westgate, a Burlington attorney who clerked with her from 2013 to 2014. The justice has also served as a role model to a generation of young women in the law, Westgate said.

Though Skoglund may be best known for her larger-than-life personality, colleagues describe her as a deeply serious jurist with an unmatched work ethic.

"Of all the justices I've worked with, I think she probably put ... more effort into preparing and understanding a case than any," said Dooley, who served alongside Skoglund for two of his three decades on the court.

Court administrator Patricia Gabel was taken aback by Skoglund's decision to step down. "I wasn't sure she would retire," Gabel said.

"It's hard to imagine the Supreme Court without Marilyn on it," said retired justice Brian Burgess.

Though Skoglund was appointed by Democratic governor Howard Dean and her politics appear to be liberal, she said she has no concerns about Scott, a Republican, choosing her successor.

"You know, it's Vermont. It's not like [President Donald] Trump's gonna appoint a replacement," she said, adding that if that were the case, she would continue to serve "with a drool cup and passing out or something."

The court has been majority female since Scott named Karen Carroll to replace Dooley in 2017, but Skoglund is also unconcerned about her successor's gender. "I could not care less," she said. "I just want a really good, smart person."

Born in Chicago and raised in St. Louis, Skoglund had what she describes as an "idyllic childhood," replete with a picket fence and parents who were "the Swedish equivalent of Ozzie and Harriet." Her father managed a steel treatment plant and her mother, a former hairdresser and math tutor, raised the future justice and her sister.

Skoglund spent seven years meandering her way through Southern Illinois University — a fine arts major and "hippie folk singer" who worked, for a time, as a graphic designer for the inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller. She finally earned her diploma after getting married and becoming pregnant with her first daughter.

The young family moved to Vermont in 1973 so that Skoglund's husband could take a job teaching painting and printmaking at Goddard College. They rented a small, uninsulated cottage on a 500-acre dairy farm in Plainfield. Skoglund learned to milk cows, taught photography and worked as an editor at Goddard. The marriage didn't last, though, and soon she was raising her daughter on her own.

Skoglund found herself relying upon the generosity of Walter Smith, the 68-year-old dairy farmer who served as her landlord and her "very own personal version of welfare." He provided firewood when she needed it and let her dip raw milk from the bulk tank. When she and her daughter were low on food, they would join Smith for cans of chicken noodle soup and mayonnaise sandwiches.

"He saw me through it," she said.

Skoglund's experience with poverty later informed her work on the bench and, she said, gave her "a very good understanding of desperation and frustration and what it causes people to do."

"I think I'm the only justice that's ever been poor," she said.

After completing a six-month paralegal class, Skoglund landed a clerkship in the Vermont Attorney General's Office and began reading for the law — an alternative route to the bar that enables aspiring attorneys to bypass law school through independent study.

"It was a solitary, self-motivated education, but I am disciplined," she wrote in a recent essay about her unconventional path. "In the central office of the attorney general, I was the only student with about 50 'teachers.'"

Marilyn Skoglund and her dog, johnny - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Marilyn Skoglund and her dog, johnny

Skoglund spent four years clerking for Louis Peck, then the chief assistant attorney general and later a Supreme Court justice. She would run lines for Peck, an amateur actor, and he would school her in the law. Skoglund credits him with informing her "legally conservative" approach.

"I don't take liberties with the language, and I don't read myself into it," she said. "It's not about you, Marilyn."

Skoglund spent 17 years in the Attorney General's Office, eventually serving as chief of its civil law division and then its public protection division. She was appointed to the Superior Court in 1994 and to the Supreme Court in 1997.

"It's like candy," Skoglund said of her current gig. "I have never been bored."

The pace of the job wouldn't allow it. The supremes hear an average of 120 full cases a year, plus many more appeals on the so-called "rocket docket." They're also consumed by the myriad unseen administrative duties of the judicial branch, such as divvying up its "shoestring" budget and managing the lower courts.

"This all takes hours when all I want to be doing is reading cases," Skoglund said.

One of her most memorable opinions, according to former justice Burgess, involved a long-running dispute over a dirt road in the town of Georgia. While the underlying argument between a landowner and the town had merely local import, Skoglund used the case to confer upon Vermonters a new right to sue under the common benefits clause of the state Constitution. Her opinion gave residents recourse when a public body treated them unequally.

"Intellectually, this was a big deal," Burgess said. "She carried the rest of us and, I gotta say, carrying all five members of the Supreme Court to a conclusion is a chore."

Skoglund's most entertaining work, however, has been in her dissents. Westgate, her former clerk, points to a 2013 case in which a majority of the court agreed with the state tax commissioner that an elderly man failed to qualify as a resident of Vermont and could not reap certain tax benefits.

In her sharply worded dissent, Skoglund called the majority's decision "nonsensical" and wrote that, to agree with the commissioner, she "would have to ignore the little voice of common sense yelling in my head." After eviscerating the commissioner's logic, point by point, she concluded with the words, "What? I dissent."

According to Skoglund, her acid prose occasionally gives her law clerks "panic attacks." But members of her tight fraternity of former clerks praise her "dedication to raising a new generation" of lawyers, as Todd Daloz put it.

"She has a real energy and a real humor and a real joy of life," said Daloz, who clerked for Skoglund from 2009 to 2011 and now serves as associate general counsel for the Vermont State Colleges System.

"When I hire [clerks], I explain that I'm hiring my best friend for the next year," Skoglund said. "I have to be able to come in and vent and bitch and moan and get solace from them."

Skoglund's friends describe her as a grand convener who will invite an array of women to play mah-jongg or spend a weekend at Seyon Lodge in Groton State Forest. For 15 years, according to Diane Derby, she brought eight women together for a regular game of poker.

"None of us really knew how to play," said Derby, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "Poker became an excuse to just get together and laugh our butts off."

Though Skoglund takes her work seriously, her friend said, she dispenses humor from the bench to make young, nervous lawyers more comfortable when arguing before the court. "She just wants to put you at ease," Derby said.

For the past 35 years, Skoglund has lived in a tall, brown- and green-shingled house perched above the Statehouse on the southern boundary of Hubbard Park. The place is crammed with books and artwork and features a "wall of dogs" consisting of canine paintings she's collected.

"It's kind of a magical place for me," she said of her home, where she does much of her off-the-bench legal work. "It's just a sanctuary."

Skoglund's two grown daughters, an obstetrician and a neuropsychologist, have long since moved out. Her current roommates include a 4-year-old goldendoodle named Johnny and, during Vermont's four-month legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham).

"I always say I have the best roommate," Balint said. "Sometimes it's seven o'clock in the morning and we're both crying because we're laughing so hard."

Balint befriended Skoglund a dozen years ago when the senator's partner, Elizabeth Wohl, clerked for the justice. After Vermont legalized gay marriage in 2009, the couple turned to Skoglund to "upgrade us," as Balint put it, from their civil union status.

The roomies spend plenty of time watching "Project Runway" together and guffawing over their favorite website, which features photos of cakes decorated with ridiculous messages. But according to Balint, Skoglund also devotes her off-hours to more serious pursuits, such as writing about religion and spirituality.

"Her brain is always synthesizing information," Balint said. "She says to me regularly, 'I know it's time for me to step down, but I wish I could do this job forever because I learn something from every case.'"

The senator marveled at a 25-year-old photo hanging on their fridge featuring the blond dynamo at her district court swearing-in ceremony. "She looks like this impish girl who won the lottery," Balint said. "Like, Wow. This is my life? I'm going to be a judge? I find it so moving every time I look at it."

Last Friday morning, after showing off her tattoo, Skoglund wrapped an unused dog leash around her waist and commenced her three-block commute down the hill and past the Statehouse to the Supreme Court. Johnny pranced along in front of her, relishing his freedom.

Skoglund gushed about her daughters and 9-year-old granddaughter, with whom she had spent the previous weekend.

"They're not thrilled with this tattoo — at least, the younger one isn't," she conceded. "But that's the way it goes, ladies. Mom's gotta do what Mom's gotta do."

Skoglund entered the court through a side door and showed off one of her most concrete contributions to the institution: an art gallery in the lobby of the building that she's curated for the past 20 years.

"When I first got here, it was the hall of dead justices," she said, referring to the oil paintings of her predecessors, now relegated to the stairways and upper floors. In their place was a series of mixed-media pieces by the artist Janet Van Fleet consisting of red buttons and plastic animals.

Johnny led Skoglund up to her third-floor office, which features a smiling boar's head mounted to a wall. "Behind you is Emmet, my amanuensis," she said, gesturing at the hairy creature. "A lot of those wild boar things look scary and vicious. He's just sweet."

Skoglund took a seat behind her cluttered desk and said, with a resigned tone of voice, "I've been here for 22 years. It's time to go."

Asked how she hoped people would remember her, Skoglund answered without hesitation.

"I worked hard," she said. "I took my position very seriously. I never cut corners. I understood the responsibility. That's what I hope."

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