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Judge, Politician Franklin Billings Jr. Dies in Woodstock at 91

Bankruptcy Court Judge Franklin Billings in his Rutland, Vt., office on June 24, 1994. (Valley News - Robert Pope)

Bankruptcy Court Judge Franklin Billings in his Rutland, Vt., office on June 24, 1994. (Valley News - Robert Pope) Purchase photo reprints »

Woodstock — Franklin Billings Jr., an iconic political and judicial leader who helped reshape how the state of Vermont was governed, died Sunday at the Woodstock home where he was born. He was 91.

The former chief judge of the U.S. district court for Vermont and chief justice of the state Supreme Court died Sunday morning, his widow, Pauline, told The Associated Press.

“His great part in leadership was his ability to compromise and come out with the right answers for the greatest number of people,” said his wife of 62 years. “One knew where he stood at all times. His word was his bond.”

As speaker of the Vermont state House, Billings played a key role in changing Vermont’s “one town-one vote” system which had given equal representation no matter the size of each town. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Vermont to change the system and the House voted to reapportion itself from 246 to 150 members in May 1965.

The reapportionment reflected a power shift away from the conservative small, rural towns to the larger, more urban and more moderate communities, leading to new laws that dramatically changed Vermont.

“The small town representatives did not want to give up their right to be there,” Billings said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2005. “They knew in the new system they might not get elected. I had a great worry they were not going to follow the law, that they were going to ignore the court order. That was one of the few times I went down on the floor to speak. My argument was that either we did it or the courts would.”

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy said that he was one of two legislative draftsmen hired by Billings to help create the reapportionment plan. Leahy noted that he was a young Democrat just out of law school and Billings a Republican.

“He wanted that drafted the right way,” Leahy said in a phone interview Sunday night. “There were obviously people who did not like it, who thought it was the end of Vermont and the end of our state as we knew it, but he thought otherwise and thought it reflected us coming into a new day, a new era.

“The family tree goes back forever in our state. I think you always had a sense that he had a responsibility to Vermont more than to the political party or the ideology. I think that’s what made him so effective.”

Billings became a state judge in 1966 and served on the state supreme court from 1975 to 1984, including one year as chief justice, before he was nominated to the district court by President Ronald Reagan.

His father served as governor of Vermont from 1925 to 1927. His great uncle, Frederick Billings, was the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad for a time and the town of Billings, Mont., is named for him.

The mansion where Frederick Billings lived in Woodstock was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967 and is now part of a National Historical Park.

Billings graduated from Harvard University in 1943 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1947, his family said in an obituary.

He was wounded while serving as a civilian ambulance driver in World War II when his vehicle struck a land mine in Italy and was awarded a Purple Heart in 2010.

Besides his wife, Billings is survived by four children and eight grandchildren. A private service is planned.