Experts say Brillon case a reprimand for Vermont Supreme Court

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(Host) Experts say the Vermont Supreme Court got a reprimand from the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

The federal justices say the Vermont court was wrong when it allowed a man to go free from prison because he didn’t get a speedy trial.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The case involves a lengthy legal history, two Supreme Courts, and, potentially, two constitutions.

So first, the background. A year ago, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that a man charged with assaulting his girlfriend should be set free.

Michael Brillon had been charged in 2001 – but he wasn’t put on trial until June 2004. The Vermont justices said the three year delay violated Brillon’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. The court said the delay was caused in part by the state, since the state paid for Brillon’s public defender.

The Bennington County State’s Attorney’s office appealed to the U-S Supreme Court. And the federal court ruled this week that the Vermont court got it wrong.

Professor Peter Teachout is an expert on constitutional law at Vermont Law School.

(Teachout) "I think the United States Supreme Court said in no uncertain terms that at least in applying the four part test that is conventionally applied in this area the Vermont Supreme Court failed to take into account things that it should have taken into account. It’s a reprimand in that sense."

(Dillon) Prosecutors in Bennington were pleased by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Christina Rainville is a deputy state’s attorney who argued the case.

(Rainville) If Brillon had prevailed it would become the law of the nation that delays caused by a defendant’s publicly paid lawyer would be chargeable against the state.

(Dillon) Professor Teachout said the court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, underscored the significance of the ruling.

(Teachout) It would first of all invite defendants to engage in a kind of sabotage of the process on their own. But second of it all it would invite defense counsel to interpose delays in the hope that they could then take refuge under the original Vermont Supreme Court decision. So there were far reaching implications if the Supreme Court of the United States had decided the other way.

(Dillon) The federal court decision becomes final in about three weeks when the case is sent back to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Brillon’s defense lawyer has raised the possibility of continued legal action. The earlier decisions were based on the federal constitution. But the defense lawyer has said that the state court could rule that Brillon’s right to a speedy trial was violated under the provisions of the state constitution.

Teachout said that scenario is possible, but not likely.

(Teachout) "The state Supreme Court normally in a case like this would say, look, you had your opportunity to raise the state constitutional claim as an independent basis for objecting the first time around. You failed to do so. You’re not going to get a second bite at the apple."

(Dillon) But Teachout said the Vermont Supreme Court could decide to open up the state constitutional issues on its own.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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