Remembering the Honorable Robert W. Larrow

Forty-Two Years Ago

When I awoke last Friday morning, I realized that it was the 42nd anniversary of my first full day of work as a lawyer. I was not yet admitted to the bar, but as a fledgling judicial law clerk I did not need to be.

Remembering that anniversary flooded my mind with recollections of my first boss, the Honorable Robert W. Larrow, who was for 7 years an Associate Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.

The Preview

The night before we began our clerkships, the Deputy Clerk of the Court, Anthony Otis, and his wife, Trudy, invited the five new law clerks to their home for dinner and a chance to get to know one another.

Otis was not shy about sharing his views. As we sat around in the living room after dinner, he turned to each of us and described, in a nutshell, what he thought our clerkships would be like. He told one of my colleagues — I won’t say which one — that he was in effect going to be a Justice because the real judge was disengaged from the work and would leave nearly everything to him.

He told me that Justice Larrow would use me in a traditional style, writing bench memoranda to summarize the law on a particular case and in editing his opinions, each of which he would draft himself with meticulous care. He warned me that Justice Larrow was notoriously irascible, and that I would have a tough year. He also explained that Justice Larrow was the intellectual leader of the court, and that his will typically ruled the day.

Otis’ characterizations of the judges were based in fact, but were not quite accurate, for which I am grateful.

Larrow the Politician

I had already done my research, and I knew that Larrow was a colorful figure. He was one of a handful of people who were responsible for making the Vermont Democratic Party a real political power. In 1952, at only 37 years old, he was the candidate in the Democratic Party’s first competitive race for Governor. He did not win, but after a vigorous campaign, he received 60,051 votes, some 40% of the vote cast and a record for a Vermont Democrat.

I was deeply interested in politics, and I told Justice Larrow that I had worked hard in Phil Hoff’s 1970 Senate campaign. Hoff and Larrow were friends and political allies. Larrow had helped Hoff get elected governor in 1962 by running for Attorney General on his ticket.

So, in addition to our work together, Larrow started telling me stories about the Vermont Democratic Party’s long years in the political wilderness. In those days, the Party was really run by a handful of men who gathered at State Senator Fred Fayette’s camp on Shelburne Bay to play poker on Thursday nights. There they would decide who would take a turn in the barrel as candidate for statewide office in the next election. And, more to the point, who would benefit from political patronage when Democrats controlled the presidency.

Brown Bag Lunches

Three members of the Court lunched together at restaurants nearly every day when the Court was hearing argument. But Larrow had an arthritic hip and used a crutch to get around.  So, he and Justice Franklin S. Billings, Jr, would brown bag it in chambers.

Larrow knew that I loved hearing his stories.  He invited me to have lunch almost every day with him and Justice Billings. For nearly two years, every day the Court was in session I got to listen and learn about Vermont law and politics.

Billings had a significant political history of his own. A Republican, his father was a Vermont governor.   In 1960, Billings had been a “Young Turk,” a member of a small bipartisan group of progressively minded junior legislators that included Hoff. Later, Billings was Speaker of the House in the historic session in which it reapportioned itself from a 240 member “one town, one vote” body to its current 150 members, apportioned based on population.

The Acid Wit

The most humorous story Larrow told, that I recall, involved two Vermont Governors, Hoff and Richard A. Snelling. After his election as Governor, Hoff appointed Larrow Chairman of the Vermont State Liquor Control Board. In 1964, Snelling ran for Governor against Hoff. Snelling failed in his first effort, and Hoff was re-elected.

Shortly after the election, Snelling approached Larrow as he crossed the street in Burlington. Snelling complained loudly about the fact that the Board had declined to renew the lease on a liquor store it rented from Snelling. Snelling said he couldn’t believe that Larrow would let politics influence such a decision. Larrow laughed and said: “Politics had nothing to do with it. The decision was entirely personal.”

I know the story is true because some years later, Governor Snelling told me the story almost exactly as Larrow had. To his credit, Snelling laughed at the punch line.

A Diligent Judge

I also learned why Larrow was the intellectual leader of the Court. It wasn’t just intelligence. More important was his diligence. When he came to Court for the first day of a term of argument, he would toss me a black leather-bound notebook and say, “Burn a copy of that for yourself, son.” It contained as many pages as there were cases to be heard during the term. Each case was summarized with about a half a page of typewritten notes that he had prepared based on his review of the briefs. The last line would describe what he thought was the appropriate result and where he expected to find two votes from his colleagues to get it.

His preparation armed him to use oral argument to pursue a majority of the Court. Some lawyers found his questioning at argument difficult. He was cross-examining to persuade his colleagues that his result was the right one. 

At the end of the term, he would invite me to copy his notebook again. By then he had added, in his bold hand, notes from the Court’s post-argument conference. He would record the result, (which nearly always matched his preliminary decision), the rationale, and identify which justice was assigned to write the opinion.

After the term, he divided the opinions that were assigned to him with me. I had to work like the devil to get a draft or two into his hands before he finished all of his. Typically, he’d write a couple of opinions over the first weekend. Then we would start drafting back and forth at one another. He had a rule: All of our opinions had to be finished, and in the hands of the other justices, with at least two weeks to go before the next term of argument began, so that we could focus on reading the new briefs.

In the following weeks and months, I would compare Larrow’s notes with the draft opinions we got from the other justices to make sure the results were consistent with the decisions of the conference.

Although he let me draft opinions, he would own every line before we circulated an opinion. In my second year as a clerk, I worked for Chief Justice Albert W. Barney, Jr., but when Larrow’s clerk left before the end of the year, I also edited Larrow’s opinions. He had hip replacement surgery, and was not at his best. Once, I “explained” to him that according to the Harvard Bluebook, the “Cf.” signal should not be used without an explanatory parenthetical. We argued the point for a few minutes, until he said, “All right, have it your way.” I was stunned, realized he was not up to full strength, and replied, “No Judge, we’ll do it your way.”


More than 40 years later, I look back at those two years with deep appreciation. I was excited. I was doing work that I loved. I was being steeped in Vermont jurisprudence. And I had the best mentor I could imagine.

Every week, late on Friday afternoon, Justice Larrow would head home looking forward to a couple of dry “martoonis” and time with his beloved wife, Mickie.  Because of his arthritic hip, I would always carry his briefcase out to the car. Every week he’d say the same thing: “Have a great weekend, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and call if you need bail.”



2 Replies to “Remembering the Honorable Robert W. Larrow”

  1. OK, Rich, you’ve got my attention. Here’s a Justice Larrow story you might remember. During that 2nd year of your clerkship the Court was meeting down the street in a school auditorium while the courtroom was being remodeled. There was just a long folding table up on the front of a stage, and folding tables below the stage for the lawyers. The case involved workers compensation immunity – from the plaintiff’s viewpoint, a fervent argument to breach it when the employer unconscionably and intentionally removed a safety guard from a band saw, resulting in a splinter of wood going into the plaintiff’s eye and brain. During argument, plaintiff’s attorney made the mistake of lifting and shaking a jar of murky liquid – containing the wooden splinter – in front of the court. Justice Larrow nearly took the whole table with him as he sprung up, shouting, “what do you take this court for, a jury? Put that away!” Scared the bejeesus out of that lawyer!

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