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Montpelier Lawyer And Activist Ben Scotch Dies At 83

Ben Scotch with his wife, Barbara, in 2017.
Provided by the family
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Ben Scotch with his wife, Barbara, in 2017. Scotch, a Montpelier-based lawyer and activist, died this week at age 83.

Benson Scotch of Montpelier — a lifelong champion of the law, the arts and civil rights and liberties — has died at 83.

Ben, as he was known to all, was long a genial Montpelier presence, known for his trademark straw boating hat and for bicycling the streets of the capital city in all sorts of weather.

"You know you’re alive when you’re riding your bike at zero degrees," he told the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus in 2000. “It’s not ambiguous.”

When it came to those things he cared about, Scotch did not cheer from the sidelines. He stepped into the fray.

As executive director of the ACLU of Vermont  from 2000 to 2003, he defended civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act.

For 15 years prior to that, Scotch pedaled to work at the Vermont Supreme Court, where he served as chief staff attorney.  

“He had a great energy for life; he combined a great intellect with that energy and a social conscience as well,” says former Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy.

"[Scotch] had a great energy for life; he combined a great intellect with that energy and a social conscience as well." — Former Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy

Amestoy says the two first met when Scotch was an assistant attorney general and Amestoy was a law clerk.

As assistant AG, Scotch was instrumental in defending Vermont's "bottle bill," which went into effect in 1973. An earlier bill had been overturned because of beverage industry opposition.

At the ACLU, Scotch had a hand in drafting Vermont's landmark civil unions legislation. As a private citizen, he spearheaded a town meeting resolution opposing the Iraq war.

“He loved Vermont,” says Amestoy. “He had a lot to do with changing policy in Vermont, not only legally but socially as well.”

Scotch moved to Vermont in 1972 and worked for then-Attorney General James Jeffords before taking a job in 1980 with Sen. Patrick Leahy on a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.  

Scotch brought a love of language, a sense of humor and a desire to engage to the conversations he had with friends, colleagues and passersby.

“He would consider almost anything that anybody said, even if he profoundly disagreed with it, because he wanted to understand why people thought the way they did,” says Allen Gilbert, who succeeded Scotch as head of the ACLU of Vermont. “You always came out with a slightly different take on something or something new you were thinking about.”

"[Scotch] would consider almost anything that anybody said, even if he profoundly disagreed with it, because he wanted to understand why people thought the way they did." — Allen Gilbert, former ACLU of Vermont executive director

Scotch spoke often about the use of government power and a citizen’s duty to understand and speak out when that power was abused.

In https://vimeo.com/109765582">a talk he gave in Shelburne in 2014 called "Who Decides About War?" Scotch discussed wars waged without justification or legal authorization. His admonition to the audience on these issues captured his broader view of the responsibilities of citizenship.

"We are all relying on you," he said to those present at that talk. "And you, and we, have a really sacred duty to take these issues up and to act, to make it better, to restore the Constitution to what it was when it was adopted."

As a supporter of the arts, Scotch helped to found the Onion River Arts Council in Montpelier and for many years served on the board of the Craftsbury Chamber Players.

"He was a very loyal supporter," says Ned Houston, president of the the Craftsbury Chamber Players board. "He had a sense about small arts organizations and what they needed to survive."

Scotch's involvement with the chamber players dates back to the 1970s. Fran Rowell, the organization's music director, was a child when she first met him.

"I vividly remember meeting this wacky, wonderful gentleman who was effusive about music," she says.

Scotch dabbled in the arts himself, and was known to compose sonnets.

"Our father passed away at the end of December," Rowell says. "Within days of the announcement, an email arrived from Ben with a sonnet he'd written for our dad. It's wonderful."

Scotch was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Maurice and Margaret Scotch. He received his B.A. from Yale before joining the Army. After the service, he attended and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Scotch died Monday after a brief illness. Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Barbara; daughters Mariza and Sarah, son Oliver, sister Barbara Schreiber of New City, New York; and a granddaughter.

A celebration of Scotch's life will take place in the spring.
 

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