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Oakes Remembrance

11/02/07 5:55PM By Jeff Shields
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Jeff Shields, Commentator
(HOST) When commentator Geoff Shields became a law clerk for the late James Oaks, he gained much more than the average boss. Here's his remembrance of a man who embraced life as well as the law.

(SHIELDS) My mentor and friend, Judge James L. Oakes of Brattleboro, passed away recently. He had served for 36 years on the federal bench, and was a towering figure among federal judges. His mentor, Senator George Aiken, recommended him for a federal trial judge position and, a little more than a year later, to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit - perhaps the most prestigious of all Federal Circuit Courts.

Judge Oakes quickly became recognized for his extraordinary competence, and authored opinions frequently cited by the Supreme Court. Perhaps best known was his dissent in the Pentagon Papers case, where he put forward the position that the New York Times had not violated the law by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Although he did not prevail in the Second Circuit, his position was vindicated in the U.S. Supreme Court case. He was a champion of freedom of speech, of civil rights and civil liberties, and throughout his opinions he worked to protect the rights of the underdog.

But I remember him not so much for his leadership as a Judge, or for the importance of his opinions, rather for how much fun he was to work for as a law clerk right out of law school, and his friendship over the years. Judge Oakes had 85 clerks over 36 years on the bench, and he stayed in touch with all of us. His advice to us is still fresh. He would insist that we go home by 5 o'clock, believing that we would think more clearly and do better work if we had a reasonable personal life. He pointed out that it was important for us to remember those who help us - the secretaries and the court clerks would be crucial people in our lives - and that we should pay attention to them. He made the office a fun place to be - he tossed around a small football, and he put a basketball hoop on the wastebasket. He loved crossword puzzles and games of all sorts, and he was a wonderful conversationalist.

Over the years the clerks gathered at his home in Brattleboro, or at his vacation home in Martha's Vineyard, almost on an annual basis. The fun continued with great stories, lots of laughs, and the warmth of a real father figure.

Judge Oakes never lost his Vermont values. He cared about lawyers being good public citizens and going into public service. He led by example in that regard and he led as a mentor. He continued, throughout his career, to be a champion of Vermont Law School. He served on our Board for 30 years, and helped lead the law school to its pre-eminent position in environmental law and in graduating students who go on to public service.

I will miss him deeply as a friend and a mentor. All Vermonters can be proud of the work he did on our behalf, and proud of the fact that one of the most highly respected judges of our generation, James L. Oakes, called Brattleboro, Vermont his home.

Jeff Shields is President and Dean of Vermont Law School.
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