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John Gregg: Remembering Judge Billings

Gov. Peter Shumlin has ordered state flags across Vermont to be lowered next Wednesday through Friday to honor the late Franklin S. Billings Jr., the former Vermont House speaker and chief justice of the state Supreme Court who died Sunday in Woodstock.

Billings was a monumental figure in Vermont politics, helping preside over the reapportionment of the House that made Vermont more democratic, and Democratic, even though Billings himself was Republican.

The 91-year-old Billings died in the house where he was born and lived all his life, except for his time in college and in World War II, where he was badly wounded and earned a Purple Heart while driving an ambulance in Italy.

The son of a Vermont governor, Billings had a first-class education, attending Milton Academy, Harvard University and the University of Virginia Law School.

But he also remained deeply rooted — and grounded — in Woodstock and the Upper Valley, playing a major role in organizations ranging from the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation to Vermont Law School.

Former Vermont Law School President Jeff Shields said in a 2012 interview that Billings was an original trustee of the law school and played a central role in helping the school gain accreditation from the American Bar Association, and on the decision for VLS to focus heavily on environmental matters.

“He was a person of impeccable integrity and great good humor and had a deep, deep interest in Vermont,” Shields said. “Vermont politics, Vermont governmental policy, and the legacy of his family in Woodstock, and in Vermont more broadly.”

Billings, a retired federal judge, remained active in Woodstock civic affairs throughout his life, serving into his late 80s as chairman of the town’s Development Review Board.

Michael Brands, Woodstock’s town planner and administrative officer, said Billings “didn’t turn off the retirement switch at 65. He just kept at it,” and used his expertise as a jurist to help “control an audience” during development issues that could, at times, turn emotional for attendees.

“He was always very fair. The facts were the important part of the application, and not the emotion,” Brands said. “He was very good at cutting through to that.”

Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand, who clerked for Billings in the late 1980s, said the judge had a strong sense of fairness, and humor.

“I think the amazing thing about Judge Billings is he obviously grew up in fairly comfortable surroundings, but always had an appreciation for the underdog, and that was really evident in everything he did on the bench,” Sand said. “He had no problem holding the federal prosecutors’ feet to the fire, and really made sure that even the less fortunate got a fair shake in the courtroom.”

Billings also had “an incredible sense of humor” and enjoyed dubbing nicknames on many of his associates. Another clerk would often ask Billings if she could try a bite of his lunch, while Sand once had the misfortune of spilling food on his tie. Billings dubbed the pair “Scrounger” and “Grease Spot.”

Sand said Billings also used to refer to Will Hunter, a Rhodes Scholar who defended many indigent clients but also had a reputation for tardiness, as “the late Will Hunter.”

Sand recalled Billings erupting with a loud belly laugh when an attorney in a copyright case tried to assert that his client’s artwork differed substantially from that of the plaintiff.

“He said in a bellowing voice, ‘go out and settle this case,’ which is, of course, what they did,” Sand said. “He loved to go into chambers, and there much more of his personality and sense of humor would come out.”

Briefly Noted

∎ Most, but not all, New Hampshire House lawmakers from the Upper Valley voted Wednesday to repeal the death penalty. Among the nay votes were Democrats Wendy Piper of Enfield and Ben Lefebvre of Grantham and Republicans Rick Ladd of Haverhill, Harold Reilly of Hill, Skip Rollins of Newport, Joe Osgood of Claremont and Steven Smith of Charlestown. Several lawmakers missed the vote, perhaps because of the snowstorm.

∎  House Labor Committee Chairman Andy White on Wednesday applauded passage of a bill that would set New Hampshire’s minimum wage at $8.25 per hour in 2015 and $9.00 for 2016, and then adjust it annually based on inflation.

The Lebanon Democrat said such a move would “directly impact” 76,000 workers, many of them women over the age of 20. “It is time to reject the myths of job loss and accept the fact that wages have not kept pace with inflation and low wages are nothing more than corporate welfare,” White said in a statement. “Passing this measure will put additional money into our local community economies while reducing the need for state-provided social services.”