Former Chief Justice, Legislator Franklin S. Billings Jr. Dies

Mar 11, 2014

Former Vermont Supreme Court Justice Franklin S. Billings Jr. has died.

Billings served the state and his community in many capacities and leaves a legacy as both a legislator and a judge.  He was 91.

Billings was born in Woodstock, the son of a former Vermont Governor Franklin Swift Billings.

He was elected to the Vermont House in 1960 and was part of a small group of highly influential freshmen members that included Democrats and Republicans.

They were called the Young Turks.

“These were people who were forward thinking people who did a lot for the state in its approach to modernizing law,” says Peter Langrock, a longtime Rutland attorney who first met Billings in the late 1950s.

Langrock says Billings and the other Young Turks were the vanguard of a progressive movement that shaped the Vermont that exists today.

Billings served as Speaker of the House and presided over the landmark court-ordered reapportionment which based representation in the legislature on population rather than geography.

His career on the bench began in 1966 as a superior court judge.

From 1975 to 1984 he was as an associate justice and then chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.  He finished his judicial career at U.S. District Court for Vermont.

Langrock argued cases before Billings in each of those venues.  He says despite a privileged upbringing, Billings saw the law through the eyes of those who didn’t have much power.

“He was really concerned about the people.  He didn’t like insurance companies; he didn’t like banks imposing themselves on people,” he says.

Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley says as chief judge, Billings led the judicial system through a period of transition.  Dooley says Billings created a strong, centralized administration to deal with the growing number and complexity of cases.

Dooley says Billings also left a mark in important rulings.

He objected to imposing time limits on when lawsuits had to be filed. For example, the health effects from hazardous materials might not be evident for years after a person is exposed.

“Under some of these statutes the ruling had been, ‘you’re out of luck, tough’, Dooley explains. “He was particularly incensed about that. In his time here he worked with his colleagues and got them turned around.”

Dooley says Billings also presided over the court at a time of growing interest in issuing rulings based on the state constitution which offered greater protections than the federal constitution.

Billings also volunteered for many local boards and commissions in Woodstock and he was a trustee for numerous non-profit and educational organizations.

He died Sunday in the Woodstock home where he was born. He is survived by Pauline, his wife of 62 years, and four children.