Before September 29, 2017, Brattleboro’s stately U.S. Post Office housed a U.S. District Court, home to amenities including a courtroom, chambers, clerk’s office, jury lounge, and conference rooms. Until 2007, the chambers belonged to Judge James L. Oakes (1924—2007). Beginning in 1970 Oakes was pivotal in establishing Vermont as a national leader in environmental law.
James L. Oakes was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1924. He attended Harvard as an undergrad, then proceeded to graduate from Harvard Law cum laude in 1947. In 1949 he returned to Vermont to become partners at law with Robert T. Gannett II in Brattleboro. He attended the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March, an experience which deeply affected his later work. In 1966 he won the race for Vermont Attorney General. He served as Chief Judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals from 1989 to 1992.
During Oakes’ run as Attorney General he faced many charged issues such as the fairness of elections, the rebuilding of the Vermont Republican Party, property rights, and voting irregularities. The biggest impact on Oakes’ time in office was what is known as the “Irasburg Affair” when he took a leading role in the investigation of this racially charged incident.
For 30 years, Judge Oakes was on the Vermont Board of Trustees for the Vermont Law School. In 1995 he was awarded a Doctor of Laws honorary degree. Oakes donated a collection of his own papers on environmental issues with regard to the law to the Vermont Law School.
Audio Producer: Sally Seymour
Commentary: Elizabeth Catlin
Ongoing Development and Involvement:
As a community-created project, we encourage ongoing dialogue, questions, and engagement. If you would like to be involved in future developments, have information or a perspective that could deepen others' understanding of this topic, please contact us: we want to hear from you.