Robert Gensburg, Vermont attorney and lead ACLU counsel on landmark Brigham v. State school equity case, passed away on November 9th
MONTPELIER—The ACLU of Vermont is remembering Vermont attorney Robert “Bob” Gensburg, who passed away on Thursday. A longtime ACLU of Vermont member, supporter, and ACLU cooperating attorney, Gensburg was widely admired as a warm, passionate, and skilled advocate for social justice.
Among his countless professional accomplishments, Gensburg’s crowning achievement was leading the ACLU legal team that won the landmark 1997 case Brigham v. State. In that case, the Vermont Supreme Court—relying on the Vermont constitution’s common benefits clause—unanimously struck down Vermont’s inequitable school funding system.
The Brigham case established the principle that all Vermont schoolchildren should be afforded equal educational opportunity and paved the way for Act 60, which established Vermont’s current school funding system. The Supreme Court’s reliance on the common benefits clause in Brigham was cited in subsequent litigation establishing marriage equality in Vermont.
“No one in Vermont that I know of has surpassed Bob Gensburg’s commitment to and talent in defending civil liberties,” said Jim Morse, president of the ACLU of Vermont.
Gensburg liked to recall that he became lead counsel in Brigham because he missed the first meeting of what would become the Brigham legal team. He was appointed in absentia, but later admitted that he would not hesitate to say yes again, because he felt that “the issue was so important, the case so interesting, and the result so rewarding.”
“Bob’s commitment didn’t end after the court ruled,” said ACLU of Vermont associate director Andrea Warnke. “He spent the next 20 years monitoring, analyzing, and testifying on legislative proposals to prevent actions that could undermine the principle that all children deserve equal educational opportunity.”
In 1997, the ACLU of Vermont presented Gensburg with its 15th annual Civil Liberties Award, recognizing his leadership in the groundbreaking case. However, Gensburg, as always, was eager to share the spotlight, presenting the ACLU of Vermont’s Jonathon B. Chase Cooperating Attorney Award to the attorneys that worked with him on the Brigham team.
“I never encountered anyone with a stronger, deep-in-the-bones belief in equal treatment under the law than Bob Gensburg,” said Allen Gilbert, who was chair of the Worcester School Board when it joined the Brigham case in 1995 and later went on to serve as ACLU of Vermont’s executive director. “I remain overwhelmed by the enormity of what he and the rest of the Brigham legal team achieved—the firm recognition by the Vermont Supreme Court that we’re all in this democratic enterprise together, and everyone counts.”
Gensburg’s commitment to civil rights and the rule of law extended to many other cases and beyond Vermont. For many years he represented an Afghan man detained since 2002 at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay. He donated his legal expertise and paid his own expenses to represent his client, who was detained by the U.S. government for 14 years before being released in January of 2017.
"Bob became a beacon guiding so many through difficult waters,” said David Putter, ACLU of Vermont board member and member of the Brigham legal team. “Professionally, socially, and politically he is universally emulated. In his passing he takes with him a piece of a gentler, more dignified world. We will not soon see another like him.”
The ACLU of Vermont presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Bob Gensburg in 2016 for his decades-long career in “principled championing of equality, civil liberties, and the rule of law.”
“Bob Gensburg leaves us a remarkable legacy and an example to follow as we continue the fight for justice under the law, a fight that he made his life’s work,” said ACLU of Vermont executive director James Lyall.