Obituary: James Morse, 1940-2023 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: James Morse, 1940-2023 

Former Vermont Supreme Court Justice was passionately committed to making life better for everyone

Published January 16, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. | Updated January 16, 2023 at 11:41 a.m.

click to enlarge James Morse - COURTESY
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  • James Morse

The Honorable James L. Morse, 82, died on January 13, 2023, at his home of 52 years in the little red house by the covered bridge on Lewis Creek. He was embraced by his wife, Gretchen, and his two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel. Jim’s home was his sanctuary and where he nurtured his loving family, was a steward of the land, protected all living things and welcomed friends and neighbors with an open door. His home gave him inspiration and solace to write poetry, record his thoughts in “Doodles & Jots” and capture the beauty and irony of life through his photography and drawings.

Jim was born in New York City to Isabel and Robert Morse on September 11, 1940. He moved to Middlebury, Vt., when he was a teenager. He graduated from Deerfield Academy in 1958 and Dartmouth College in 1962. After serving as a line officer in the Navy on destroyers, he attended Boston University Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the law review and graduated in 1969 with the highest honor for service and scholastic achievement. He then clerked for Vermont Judge Sterry R. Waterman on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Jim was passionately committed to the constitutional promise of “justice for all” and to making life better for everyone in our “brave little state,” and beyond. After private practice, he served as Vermont Assistant Attorney General and later as Vermont Defender General. Jim was appointed to the Vermont Superior Court in 1981 by governor Richard A. Snelling and later was appointed Associate Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court in 1988 by governor Madeleine M. Kunin.

As a member of the judiciary for 22 years, Jim authored hundreds of opinions and earned a reputation as one of Vermont’s most compassionate and conscientious jurists. He especially enjoyed mentoring law clerks and creating opportunities for judicial education.

In addition to public service in Vermont, Jim participated in rule-of-law initiatives in Russia and Ukraine and was a consultant to the war crimes tribunal at Sarajevo in Bosnia.

After retiring from the bench in 2003, Jim served for nearly three years as a commissioner for the Agency of Human Services, re-organizing economic services, child protection, early childcare and education, and juvenile justice into the Department for Children and Families. He fully retired in October 2005.

Jim was a trustee of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges after serving as a commissioner on NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. Jim served as a trustee and president of the board of Hunger Free Vermont. He also served as a board member and president of the Board of the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Jim leaves his wife of 57 years, Gretchen; his daughter Rebecca Morse and her husband, Jerry Swope, and three grandchildren, Emma and William Downey and Henry Swope; his daughter Rachel Scarborough and her husband, Mitch, and two grandsons, Samuel and Nathaniel. He is also survived by his sister in-law and brother-in-law, Nancy and David Barry; and his nieces, Samantha Baker, Elizabeth Bain and Katherine Speede, and their husbands and children.

Our family is grateful for friends and neighbors who supported Jim through his last months of life. We are also thankful for the tenderhearted team at the University of Vermont Home Health and Hospice and Jim’s oncologist, Dr. Shahid Ahmed, at the University of Vermont Cancer Center.

To honor Jim, please consider donating to the Vermont ACLU, the Lewis Creek Association or the United Way of Northwest Vermont.

A memorial service will be held in the spring when Jim’s favorite poet, Robert Frost, reminds us that “nature’s first green is gold!”

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