Vermont high court chief justice Jeffrey Amestoy, author of the historic 1999 ruling on gay rights that led to the creation of civil unions in the state, said Wednesday he is stepping down from the court. "It is a good time for a change," said Amestoy, 57, whose resignation will become effective August 6, his 30th anniversary in state government.
Amestoy will spend the fall as a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics and then plans on assessing a future that he hopes includes opportunities to teach and write. "My plan right now is to have no plan," he said in an interview. "I want an opportunity to explore some things."
When he came to the bench, Amestoy hardly had time to unpack, though, before the court heard arguments late in 1998 in Docket No. 98-32, Baker v. State of Vermont, one of the most controversial cases and certainly the most closely watched case ever to come before the state high court. The issue was whether gays and lesbians had a right under the Vermont constitution to marry. A long year later the court issued its ruling, saying they did have such a right, but, in a decision Amestoy wrote, the justices said they would allow the legislature to decide how to make it happen.
After a tumultuous session in 2000, the lawmakers approved civil unions, which give same-sex couples state-level rights only.
Amestoy acknowledged that that decision "certainly is the one that will be most associated with my time on the court. History will make its own judgment on the Baker decision as an expression of
state constitutional law, but I don't think that there can be any doubt about the degree to which Vermont stands as an example of how a community ought to respond to an issue like that."
He said that while the Baker decision was strongly opposed by a fair number of people when it came out, people's views have since changed and civil unions have won growing acceptance. "One judgment that can be made about the Baker decision is, even as President Bush alluded to, it is an approach that people have a little different perspective on now than they might have had four years ago," he said.