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Craven: Gensburg Remembrance

The late attorney Bob Gensburg was a tireless champion against injustice, even when it was difficult and unpopular.

Gensburg recently fought and won the release of an Afghan man, Abdul Zahir who was captured and imprisoned unjustly for fourteen years at Guantanamo due to a case of mistaken identity. Gensburg worked relentlessly for years to free Zahir, despite his phone being tapped and his e-mail intercepted. In the face of all this and more, he persisted.

In 1997, he argued for the plaintiffs in the landmark Brigham vs State of Vermont case, in which the state Supreme Court ruled that Vermont’s method for funding education was inequitable and unconstitutional. The ruling led to the establishment of Act 60, creating mechanisms to better equalize funding to schools and local education tax burdens.

In 1974 Gensburg was appointed by then-Governor Salmon to probe allegations that former Vermont State Trooper Paul Lawrence, working at the time for the city of St. Albans, was planting heroin and other hard drugs on suspects. Gensburg’s tireless investigation ran contrary to some local wishes to curb proliferating hippie culture – but it resulted in convicting Lawrence and pardoning more than 200 Vermonters who’d been wrongly accused.

Quoted back then in the New York Times, Gensburg emphasized the human angle of Lawrence’s dishonest policing by saying “We had a larger issue here with all these people, who need and want their justice.”

He went on to illustrate the personal impact, saying, “Here's one kid who was mentally sound prior to his arrest (by Lawrence) and now has a history of two years in and out of mental hospitals. There's two or three cases of marriages breaking up. Here's a letter from a girl whose family threw her out and would never believe her. Here's a guy who can't get meaningful work.”

Gensburg was a modest man who carried a copy of the Bill of Rights in his wallet. In his most recent private practice, he helped advocates of low and medium income housing. And both he and his wife Leslie were stalwarts for the arts in Northeast Kingdom.

Former state Rep. Paul Cillo, one of the architects of Act 60, has described Gensburg as inspiring, brilliant and having “an unshakable commitment to justice.”

And to Robert Gensburg, said Cillo, “Justice was a matter of personal responsibility.”

Jay Craven is a filmmaker who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and directs Kingdom County Productions
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