Beth Robinson ’86 becomes first out LGBTQ+ woman appointed to federal circuit court
An active player in the decision to legalize same-sex marriage in Vermont, Robinson previously served as a lawyer and judge on the Vermont Supreme Court.
On Nov. 1, the Senate voted 51-45 to confirm Beth Robinson ’86 to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, marking the first appointment of an openly LGBTQ+ woman to any federal circuit court.
Robinson previously served as an associate justice on the Vermont Supreme Court, according to CNN. Earlier in her career, she practiced family law, personal injury, employment law, workers’ compensation and pro bono work supporting LGBTQ+ rights. Philosophy professor Susan Brison, who co-taught a course in the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program — WGST 19.2, “Sexuality, Identity, and the Law” — with Robinson in the summer of 2006 and spring of 2009, praised Robinson’s lifetime devotion to LGBTQ+ equality.
“It’s not just that she’s the first out lesbian,” Brison said. “She was, for much of her adult life, an activist about this. In a way, it’s even more of a sign that we’ve really come a long ways [because] she is who has been appointed. She’s not someone who just happens to be a lesbian but focuses on other issues. This has been one of her life’s missions: to promote marriage equality.”
Robinson helped bring before the Vermont Supreme Court and argue the landmark case, Baker v. Vermont, which resulted in Vermont becoming the first state to legalize same-sex civil unions, Brison wrote in a follow-up email. Robinson also chaired the Vermont “Freedom to Marry” Task Force off-and-on for 15 years and was “central” in eventually getting same-sex marriage passed by the Vermont state legislature, Brison said.
Government professor Hershel Nachlis said that Robinson’s confirmation marks an important step for judicial representation.
“The appointment is great news for the College and for the federal judiciary,” Nachlis said. “The judiciary isn’t the first institution one might think about when they think diversity is important … But decades of research, and just thinking about it for a few seconds, tells us that that identity really does matter even in the law and courts.”
Government professor Sonu Bedi explained that a representative court engenders more representative rule of law.
Nachlis added that diverse judges have the power to influence their colleagues, as circuit court judges typically sit in panels of three. He explained that judges’ opinions “filter up and filter down the judicial system,” reaching not only judges on other courts but also students observing the judiciary.
“Who serves in government really matters for who aspires to join government later, so when you see somebody like you, or when you see somebody who has life experiences like you, serving in positions of power, there’s good research showing that it makes you more likely to aspire to those roles — be confident that you can assume those roles,” he said.
Robinson devoted part of her life to teaching students. She received her B.A. in philosophy and government from Dartmouth before attending the University of Chicago Law School, later returning to Dartmouth to teach women’s, gender and sexuality studies and philosophy courses with Brison.
Brison said Robinson was loved by students, who responded well to her law school-style technique of “cold-calling.”
“It was just a fabulous experience,” Brison said. “It was fascinating for me to team teach with someone who’s not an academic [and] whose last experience in the university context was being a law school student.”
Nachlis said he hopes Robinson will return to Dartmouth soon to speak to students — as she has done in the past, according to Brison. Nachlis said he thinks students could benefit from hearing about Robinson’s experiences at Dartmouth, law school and on “the issues that she cares about in the legal profession and the judiciary.”
Nachlis and Bedi offered a few explanations for the delay in the appointment of an openly LGBTQ+ woman to a federal circuit court. Bedi pointed to judges’ lifetime tenure, explaining that a lack of turnover slows the process of increasing diversity.
“The federal judiciary may be one [branch of government] that lags most behind in terms of demographic representation precisely because they serve for life,” Bedi said. He added, however, that there may have been gay judges who were not open about their sexuality.
In addition, Nachlis explained that the Obama administration was concerned with judicial diversity but was “less effective” at filling seats than the Trump administration. He added that “there may well be an important intersectional dynamic here related to sexual orientation and gender,” as openly gay men have already been appointed to serve on a federal court — J. Paul Oetken, an openly gay man, was confirmed to serve as a judge on the federal district court for the southern district of New York by a 80-13 vote in 2011.
Bedi, Brison and Nachlis said they hope to see increased diversity in the future.
“This is a bit of an argument against interest at Dartmouth, but you might think that just as the federal judiciary should be far more diverse in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, it should also be far more diverse in terms of education background, class background, region background, religious background,” Nachlis said.
Bedi is hopeful that the courts will increasingly reflect American society.
“I view it that as society advances on certain issues ... you’ll see more demographic diversity,” he said. “Once you get more of those [diverse identities] as federal judges ... there will be a sense in which it will strengthen the rule of law because the rule of law… will be reflected in American society.”
Robinson declined to comment for the story. Robinson’s past colleagues at the Vermont Supreme Court did not respond to requests for comment by press time.