(Host) The Vermont House has approved legislation that supporters say is needed to ensure that all Vermonters have equal access to the state’s legal system in the future.
The bill restructures Vermont’s judicial system and reduces the responsibilities of assistant judges.
VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.
(Kinzel) The legislation combines the five different branches of the state’s Court system under the jurisdiction of the Vermont Supreme Court. These separate branches include the District, Superior, Family, Environmental and Probate courts.
Hinesburg Rep. Bill Lippert is the chairman of the House Judiciary committee – a panel that has studied this issue for many weeks.
He says the bill is needed to help streamline the operations of the courts in order to save more than a million dollars a year.
Lippert says it’s critical to implement these efficiency measures because Vermont’s Court system cannot absorb any additional budget cuts without dire consequences:
"Judicial restructuring is important for the Vermonter in every town in Vermont, because it means ensuring access to justice. It means ensuring that court hearings will continue to be held in every county in the state of Vermont. Currently we’re closing our courthouses …because of the financial pressures."
(Kinzel) Lippert says the legislation will also help the Court System deal with future financial pressures:
(Lippert) "…Which will continue, not just this year but into the future and rising caseloads in our Family Courts and in our criminal courts – the very courts which are struggling the most right now. We need to give the Court Administrator’s office, the Supreme Court, the tools to sustain court hearings and access to justice in all parts of the state."
(Kinzel) The main fight over the bill came over a plan to scale back responsibilities of assistant judges. Two of these judges are elected in every county and some sit on Traffic, Probate and Superior Court cases to review findings of fact.
Lippert says the bill limits these judges in the future to just Traffic Court cases because there’s no requirement that they be lawyers:
(Lippert) "We determined that lay judges with proper training can serve the state well in traffic proceedings. We had some reservations about continuing to have that work of assistant judges in small claims where contract issues can come into play."
(Kinzel) That decision didn’t sit well with Newport Rep. Duncan Kilmartin:
(Kilmartin) "Say that to a jury in an antitrust case, say that to a jury in a complicated securities fraud case. Are you going to say that the average citizen is incompetent to sit for 6 months and judge the evidence?…I do not want a society where judicial decisions and fact finding is made solely by the so called experts – God preserve us from that."
(Kinzel) The House voted to support the new restrictions on assistant judges by a three to one margin and then adopted the full legislation by a vote of 104 to 40. The measure will now be reviewed by the Senate.
For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.