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Alumni Spotlight: Power of the Law

Joe Benning JD'83: Serving the People

"You have to have a reason for why you think you can do a better job than the one you are running against,'" said Joe Benning JD’83 in a recent interview with the Alumni Office, offering advice to those running for office. "Always remember that you are serving the people, not the other way around.”

In addition to his work as a trial attorney based in Lyndonville, Vermont, Joe serves as one of two senators from the Caledonia-Orange District, representing all of Caledonia County and the six northernmost towns in Orange County (Newbury, Fairlee, West Fairlee, Orange, Topsham and Bradford). In his Government Operations committee assignment—among the many other issues in front of the Committee—Joe helped tackle the issue of how to address allegations of campaign finance infraction. Recent cases brought the issue to the forefront: the proposed fine for former Lt. Governor candidate Dean Corren, and Attorney General William Sorrell’s alleged receipt of campaign donations and/or establishment of a quid-pro-quo with a law firm being hired to represent the state after taking a campaign donation from them.

In his role on the Judiciary Committee (for which he serves as vice-chair) in this last legislative session, Joe worked with his colleagues through S.9, a bill designed in reaction to two tragedies last year involving children in the custody of Vermont’s Department of Children and Families. Among the bill’s most controversial components was the creation of a new felony crime that held custodians of children who were injured responsible if they knew about the dangers and failed to take actions to protect the child. The Committee also worked through S.141, a bill that attempted to radically change how gun ownership is treated in Vermont. This bill (which passed in the Senate in March) created a new state misdemeanor offense for being a felon in possession of a weapon, a controversial move for those passionate about gun control. Joe commented “I have no doubt there will be future contentious legislation surrounding this subject.”

In the midst of the legislative session’s work of fashioning a reasonable budget, a new water quality bill, and a new energy bill, Joe was happy for an opportunity to assist an undaunted teenager who requested that Vermont adopt a Latin Motto. Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat, the new motto, translates into, "The Fourteenth Star Shines Bright," calling to mind Vermont's mission to become the fourteenth state. The bill was signed into law in early April, after a much-publicized controversy a public misunderstanding wherein some Vermonters conflated Latin with Spanish, and therefore suspected the bill as an invitation to illegal immigrants to come across the borders. In a happy ending to the heated discussion, the Vermont Bar Association is now considering an annual award called "The Fourteenth Star Award" that would be given to a special student who demonstrates grace and fortitude, as Joe described “fortitude in the face of ignorance and bigotry.” Joe recently took some time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions posed by the Alumni Office.

What led you to run for the Senate in the first place?

Way back in the 1970’s, my mentor was a college professor named Graham Newell. Graham was also a 26 year veteran of the Vermont State Senate. He never got a driver’s license. He relied upon his students to drive him to his campaign events and I became one of those drivers. That got me interested in politics. But I ran for the State Senate when I came to the conclusion that I could do a better job than the guy who was then occupying the seat. Oddly enough, when I won, I got assigned to Graham’s former seat.

Is there overlap in your work as a Senator and as an attorney?

There is definitely overlap in my role as senator and my work as an attorney. A classic example of that is the bill I first worked on, now Vermont’s Criminal Expungement statute. Prior to that effort, Vermont had no way of expunging a criminal record. Once the law was passed (which required quite a bit of work on my part), I was sitting in court one day waiting for my case to be called. The case before us featured a judge, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney trying to understand this new piece of legislation and debating the nuances of the language. It was kind of comical just to sit there and listen to them. That law was enacted in 2011, and was just amended this session. It has helped several former clients to clean their records, and also dozens of others around the state.

What advice would you give to those considering a run for public office?

Do not believe you are entitled to the job. You have to work for it. You have to have a reason for why you think you can do a better job than the one you are running against. Always remember that you are serving the people, not the other way around. And should you get elected, remember this: your responsibility is to your constituents first, Vermont second, and your political party last.

What is your favorite memory from your time at Vermont Law School?

My favorite memories from VLS revolve around playing guitar with a fellow student named Rob Halpert at the Pub in the South Royalton House. We got all of the bar food we could eat, all the drinks we wanted, plus fifty bucks a piece for playing. It was a great relief from the daily grind.

A note about the SoRo Pub: Due to popular demand, the SoRo Pub will be open to VLS alumni, faculty and staff for an afternoon during Homecoming and Reunion Weekend 2015. If you haven’t registered yet for Homecoming, do so here. Visit once again this favorite and famous VLS stomping ground!

Joe Benning '83 alumni spotlight

Joe Benning JD'83

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