She Rules: Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund Is a Special Case | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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She Rules: Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund Is a Special Case


Marilyn Skoglund - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Marilyn Skoglund
Goose poop will always loom large in Marilyn Skoglund's legal file. Most Vermont Supreme Court justices might prefer that their careers have more august associations, but this one — and her colleagues — cheerfully tell the story about the fowl play. After all, it has a good punchline.

It seems that a few years back, when Skoglund was sitting on the trial bench in Chelsea, one of the cases on the docket involved two feuding neighbors. Geese belonging to neighbor A liked to swim across the pond to neighbor B's property, defecate, then swim back to their own side — taking to an extreme, perhaps, birds' reputed aversion to messing in their own nests. Anyway, neighbor B didn't much care for this potty solution, and sued neighbor A.

How that dispute resolved is not the point here. More pertinent was the "passel of suits," as Skoglund calls them, sitting at the back of the room and listening to the rural row with growing dismay. Wearing those suits were high-powered Boston attorneys who had arrived for the preliminary hearing of a multiparty insurance litigation. Their arguments were going to be highly complex and arcane. When it was their turn, the attorneys approached the bench and delicately submitted that perhaps this court — that is, this judge — was not qualified to hear their case.

At which point Her Honor turned to one of the men and said, with an exaggerated drawl, "If you talk re-e-a-al slow, I think I'll be able to follow."

The big-city lawyers were soon to discover the barb behind Skoglund's fauxhick rebuff; they had just insulted the woman who was considered to be Vermont's number-one expert in insurance law. They would have been equally impressed to learn that the feisty blond on the other side of the bench is also a poker-playing, honkytonk-singing, single-parent judge whose avocation is curating art shows in the Supreme Court lobby.

The story of the geese and the suits not only encompasses the vagaries of dispensing justice in Vermont, it illustrates the dual qualities that will be Marilyn Skoglund's legacy long after the most audacious Supreme, now 55, has laid aside her gavel. On the one side is a keening intelligence and serious love for the law's most abstruse challenges; on the other, a quick wit and a little rebellious streak that manifests as both humor and humanity in the courtroom.

Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy has seen this at play on both sides of the bench. Skoglund worked for him when he was the State's Attorney General and followed him to the Supreme Court four and a half years ago. "When Marilyn was assistant AG, she tried a case against a Canadian mail-order weight-reduction scheme," Amestoy recalls, referring to a sort of belt that was "guaranteed" to make its wearer lose 15 pounds in seven days. The state was going after the company for consumer fraud. "In the course of negotiations, she brought the belt with her and told [the defense attorneys] she was going to wear it throughout the trial to see if she lost weight," Amestoy continues, chuckling about her creative litigation. "We settled it on the first day."

The Chief Justice calls Skoglund "smart, funny, committed, a hard worker," though he's ethically barred from commenting on his colleagues judicial decisions now. "Having the opportunity to give her significant responsibility twice in the AG's office," he adds, "I was delighted with the work she did there."

Those two jobs were Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Law division, from 1988 to '93, and Chief of the Public Protection Division for one year after that. In 1994, Skoglund was appointed District Court Judge. She would have happily stayed there a few more years, Skoglund says, but in 1997, Supreme Court Justice Ernest Gibson was retiring, and "it was the only opportunity I'd see to apply for a lot of years," she notes. Her application — a long questionnaire — and interviews passed muster with the judicial review board and Gov. Howard Dean. Skoglund was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the state's highest court in August, the same month she turned 51.

"Sober as a judge" is not a simile that applies to her personality, but Skoglund — who's more likely to greet guests with a hearty guffaw than a conventional '"hello" — seems both perversely and perfectly suited to the job. "Some kind of people have insight into human nature, don't get fooled a lot and see things in a really broad way," suggests Steve Freihofner, a friend and attorney for the Vermont Department of Employment and Training. "I think Marilyn is one of those people. She goes straight for the big stuff."

Marilyn Skoglund didn't have legal briefs on her mind back at Southern Illinois University; her big leap from art major to one of Vermont's top five justices took more than 30 years. But the steps in between endowed her with a "colorful" past, a mantle she wears comfortably along with the ebony robes of jurisprudence and a couple of well-obscured tattoos. A background check would turn up motorcyle riding, singing in a bar band — "country, bluegrass, jugband stuff," she explains — and running her college's first vegetarian restaurant.

Skoglund's past — and present — also includes having two daughters from two different relationships. Now divorced, she is a devoted parent to 16-year-old Kate, who still lives at home in Montpelier, and Sidney, a medical student at the University of Vermont. Though candid in other matters, Skoglund is private about her family, and refers to her exes indirectly — "my oldest daughter's father," "Kate's father."

Any current boyfriend? "Nobody hits on a judge," she says ruefully, adding that any potential matchmakers should leave legal eagles off the list. Montpelier is a very small town.

Skoglund was herself the second of two daughters in a "seriously Swedish" Chicago family that relocated to St. Louis when she was 6. Her mother was a Northwestern University grad who tutored the football team in math, but gave up a teaching career for child-rearing. Now 87, she's back in Chicago and is "real proud" of her girls — Skoglund's sister is an art history professor at the University of Southern Indiana. Their father, a former manager at a steel treatment plant, died 20 years ago. "They both gave us the message that we could be anything we wanted," she says fondly.

What she wanted in early years was a lot of music. Young Marilyn played drums in grade school and clarinet in high school. "I wish I'd kept up the piano," she laments. "My idiot teacher never taught theory." Her musical interests later switched to singing and playing guitar, which manifest to this day in twicemonthly jam sessions at her house with a loose posse of pals — including Freihofner on bass guitar.

Skoglund took her time at SIU, getting a B.A. in art with a minor in art history. "I have no idea what I thought I was going to do with that" she says. "I took •seven years to graduate because I just took so many courses." By the time she finished in 1971, she was pregnant with her first child.

Two years later, with toddler in tow, she moved to Vermont with her first husband, who landed a teaching position at Goddard College. Skoglund got teaching and administrative work there, too, bartering it for the use of a darkroom. The marriage ultimately ended, and so did the sketchy jobs. "At the age of 30 it dawned on me that I really did need an occupation," Skoglund says. "I got a degree in fine arts and I'm not good enough to be an artist, so I had to find real work."

She always thought that if you had a job with a license — doctor, lawyer, plumber, beautician, to name a few — you'd always have employment. "I was too old for medical school," she reasons, so she turned to law. "I like to argue, like to write and like words," Skoglund muses. "It's such a nice fit, law; it's what I was supposed to be doing."

A stuffed wild boar head named Emmett holds court, as it were, in Marilyn Skoglund's office on State Street in Montpelier. But Emmett is forced to share a visitor's attention with numerous artifacts and artworks, including a winged crown featuring a woman clad in black and holding the scales of justice — and a red guitar — made by the judge's artist friend and poker buddy Adelaide Murphy Tyrol; an autographed photo of comedienne Lily Tomlin, sent when the civil-union bill was signed into law; a bobcat skull; a baseball signed by the staff at Washington District and Family courts; an old, yellowed photograph of the Swedish royal family from a century ago.

There are also a couple of drawings by Randolph artist Philip Godenschwager, who was a Plainfield neighbor of Skoglund's from way back. One of his works is a political illustration about civil unions. "She was my inspiration for it," Godenschwager says. "I gave it to her for all the work she's done in the arts." He is one of the past exhibitors in the lobby of the Supreme Court building, thanks to curator-justice Skoglund. The revolving art shows bring Skoglund full circle to her art-student days, and she's booked them — months into the future — with a good eye and affable grace. But working her way to an office upstairs wasn't so easy. "If there's anyone who's come up through the ranks and seen it and done it," suggests Godenschwager, "it would be Marilyn."

Lacking the money to attend law school, Skoglund decided to become a paralegal through a program at Montpelier's Woodbury College. Then she was "blessed" with a clerkship at the attorney general's office, and after four years passed the bar exam on her first try. Her tenure with the AG lasted 17 years.

It was during this time that Skoglund negotiated insurance contracts and liability for the state. "My colleagues can't believe how excited I get over insurance cases," she says with a grin. "I like chewing on those nutty little things; I can't explain it."

She also protected the public from weight-reduction scams and more substantive threats — while raising her second little girl. Adds attorney and consultant Susan Sussman, "She did some fabulous prosecutions of criminals" — including serial rapist Robert Percy. A former member of Skoglund's music nights, Sussman likes to describe her friend's intrinsic humanity on the bench. "When she was sitting in juvenile court, she'd paint her fingernails different colors, including black or silver," Sussman says, "just to try and have something be a little more human in a juvenile court, which is such a painful place. Or she'd wear her red leather cowboy boots to the courtroom. She's a very regular person with a huge wild streak."

One of just two female Supremes — Denise Johnson preceded her to the bench in 1990 — Skoglund reportedly vowed to be a "kinder, gentler Louie Peck" at her own swearing-in ceremony, according to Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. She was referring to the justice, known for his literate and humorous opinions, who had been her mentor in the AG's office. Appel is a former criminal lawyer and defender general who also worked there with Skoglund some 20 years ago. Assessing his friend's record as a judge, he suggests, "She's fairly conservative in criminal cases, though she's joined in some stinging dissents."

There was nothing conservative about her view, and that of the other Supremes, in December 1999 when all five agreed homosexual Vermonters were entitled to the same benefits of marriage as heterosexuals. The Baker decision, which later resulted in the Legislature's civil-union law, is the most controversial of Skoglund's career so far. Chances are the backlash from far-right legislators and citizenry will have died down by the time she comes up for professional review in another four years. But by then, "I'm sure I'll get someone angry about something else," she jokes.

Skoglund admits she was a little nervous when her car broke down near Glover some time after the civil-union decision and "all I'd seen for 15 minutes were 'Take Back Vermont' signs." She's careful, though, not to pass judgment on the people who disagree with her.

In general, Skoglund seems surprised that she has personally experienced very little criticism of her judicial opinions. "That's the thing about being a judge," she observes. "I don't know what my reputation is. In the District Court, people thought I actually listened to them." The understatement is typical of the junior justice, whom most observers seem to think is tough but fair on the bench.

"I'm not here to make the law, but to do my best in interpreting it and applying it to the cases I read," she says of her legal philosophy. "I don't think I'm an activist judge at all."

In an otherwise mundane letter accompanying materials for this story, Marilyn Skoglund concludes with the provocative query "Did I tell you I once sang in the Paris Opera House?" Pressed later for details, she erupts in a loud cackle and explains: At age 20 she and her sister traveled to Europe, and one stop was the Opera House in the French capital. The young women watched a performance, then lingered until everyone had filed out. "When no one was left except my sister and the doorman, who was waiting for us to leave," she recounts, "I sang 'The Ballad of Amelia Earhart' — just so I could say I sang in the Paris Opera."

As of this month, Skoglund will be updating her repertoire — as a new member of Vermont's political parody revue The Ground Hog Opry.

This is one judge who likes telling a good story as much as she likes interpreting the law. She's initially skittish about being interviewed, though — "This is very unnerving," she admits with a giggle — and the nature of her job makes some subjects off-limits, even with her friends. "There's no talking 'out of school,'" Freihofner explains. "That's the rule and we don't ask her anything" about cases or decisions in the courtroom.

But off the bench Skoglund warms quickly and eschews formality, insisting on first names right away. As she gradually doles out more stories, it's as if she's trying to examine herself through another's eyes. Over time it becomes clear that Skoglund finds life pretty damn interesting, and she defines herself by what she likes.

Guns, for instance. Once a year she goes to the Alburg border patrol's indoor firing range. "Last summer I shot 105 rounds with a snub-nosed .38," she reports proudly. "I got my first gun in southern Illinois to shoot copperheads off the back porch."

This summer, Skoglund is signed up for a class for "outdoor women." "I'll learn turkey shooting and fly fishing," she informs. "It remains to be seen whether I can kill a bird, though."

Knowledge about gunslinging may come in handy when Skoglund gets around to writing her mystery novel — a genre this voracious reader loves. But for now she's more apt to sling an acoustic guitar and belt out, in a tart alto, what she calls "plain old roadhouse" songs — Lucinda Williams, Flying Burrito Brothers, Merle Haggard and other countrified faves. The group that jams at her house is dubbed Ruby Ditch and the Fabulous Endings — though the moniker's actual ending fluctuates according to whim. The "Ruby Ditch" is staying, though; it's Skoglund's e-mail name.

At a recent music night, the four guys and their hostess — the other female, a pianist, can't make it — are having tuning problems. Nearly every song gets off to a rough start, and is prone to the intermittent punctuation of raucous laughter and goodnatured jibes.

Chris Lyon, who manages offender work programs for the Department of Corrections by day, has played mandolin and guitar "sporadically" with the Endings for some 13 years. He met Skoglund when he and his wife moved in next door. "I heard Marilyn in the back yard singing ersatz opera," Lyon recalls. He introduces a song called "Out Among the Stars," and Skoglund joins in. A bottle of red wine props up the lyric sheet for her ' 'new favorite song" — "John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store," by Chris King. "I'd like to learn how to yodel," she throws in.

A little horseplay ensues over the intro to "Up Against the Wall Red Neck Mother," and eventually everyone decides they don't want to play it. "We're afraid of anything with more than three chords," Skoglund confesses. Considering the group has been playing together since the mid- '80s, it's fair to say that a good time, not perfection, has been the point.

The same M.O. is apparently in place at Skoglund's poker nights with the ladies — "It's like hunting camp for women," she suggests. The eight regulars include Diane Derby, a former Times Argus reporter who is now the press secretary for Senator James Jeffords. She notes with appreciation that the games have been more or less tailored to her work schedule, returning from Washington to her Montpelier home every five or six weeks.

"We really hit it off, we laugh so hard," says Derby adding that Skoglund lays out pretzel rods to stand in for cigars. Apparently there are no "poker faces" at this gathering, where the betting is literally nickel-and-dime. "We really only know two or three games well," Derby concedes, "but we're trying to prime ourselves to get to Foxwoods."

If the gals ever make it to the casino, they might lose Skoglund to the karaoke stage. "Being around Marilyn is a constant performance," suggests her friend Philip Godenschwager. "If she hadn't become a Supreme Court judge, she'd be a great standup comic."