“I surmised then what I now know, that
his contribution on the court would be more lasting than all his accomplishments in state government. “
Recalling her first run for governor of Vermont in her book Living a Political Life, Madeline Kunin describes the backbone of her campaign, John Dooley `65, as “the smartest person I had ever known.”
The compliment seems justified. During the past twenty-five years, Dooley has risen from a clerk for a U.S. District Court judge to one of five justices on Vermont's Supreme Court. Along the way he was the director of Vermont's Legal Aid, which provides civil action attorneys for those who can't afford one.
Kunin, who is now the deputy secretary of education in Washington, said, “John provided a moral and ethical bulwark for the campaigns, and, later, for the administration.”
Dooley, whom the Vermont press called “the Little Governor,” became Kunin's legal counsel after she won her first term as governor in 1984. A year later, Kunin elevated Dooley to the top position in her cabinet, secretary of administration. In addition to directing the cabinet, Dooley wrote much of the state's annual budget and served as the governor's chief spokesman on appropriations and tax issues in the legislature. Perhaps that's why Dooley refers to his former position as “Secretary of Money.”
Dooley spearheaded efforts to redesign the way Vermont financed education. The administration launched a “Foundation Formula” in which the amount a school district received depended on how much money the locality had raised through its own property taxes. Dooley calls this process “equalization” and sees it as vital in a state like Vermont, where towns range from wealthy ski resorts with few children to poor, crowded urban areas.
In the mid-1980s the Reagan Administration virtually shut down the Environmental Protection Agency. “The EPA just wasn't performing its professional role and the states had to fill in the gaps,” Dooley recalls.
He worked with the administration and the legislature to pass some of the country's strictest laws against water pollution and hazardous waste dumps.
Deciding that the federal government's Superfund to pay for toxic cleanups was ineffective, the Kunin administration persuaded the legislature to set up a state Superfund for Vermont.
And in an era when deficit spending became the norm, Kunin and her “Secretary of Money” paid off the deficit they had inherited from the previous administration. Along the way, “we passed six tax cuts in two years,” Dooley recalls proudly.
Kunin relied so heavily on Dooley that “It was with great reluctance
that … I appointed him to the Vermont Supreme Court. This is where his intellect belonged, but I hated to let him go.” However, she writes, “I surmised then what I now know, that his contribution on the court would be more
lasting than all his accomplishments in state government.”
Dooley sits on a court that he describes as filled with independent thinkers. “I don't think anyone on the court is predictable,” he says, refusing to label the court liberal, moderate, or conservative.
The Supreme Court, as the court of last resort in Vermont, cannot refuse hearings and decides more than 300 cases annually. The court “fast-tracks” cases in which the real need is to decide who wins and who loses, so it can spend more time on developing the law of the state in areas like state and federal constitutional law.
Each justice writes as many as thirty five opinions each year, never choosing which decision to write. Dooley appreciates the diverse selection of cases he writes about, claiming, “You can find intellectual interest where you never thought you could.” One day he'll hear a case dealing with public utilities; the next, the court will have a constitutional matter or a custody battle on its docket
“You have to do other things outside of your core of responsibilities,” says the justice, who has set up a legal support project between Vermont and the Republic of Karelia, a unit of the Russian Federation.
And when he finds some spare time, the task of completing his book on evidence law awaits him.