Judiciary Restructuring Vote Likely To Set Up Debate

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(Host) The Senate Judiciary committee is set to approve a restructuring bill that will keep Vermont’s courts open every day of the week.   Because of budget cuts, many courts are currently closed two and half days a month.

The bill also maintains the current role of assistant judges … and that decision sets up a battle with the House.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel has more.

(Kinzel) The legislation is a response to a series of budget cuts imposed on the Judiciary in recent years – cuts that have forced many Vermont courts to close their doors several days a month.

The bill unifies Vermont’s five court systems under the administration of the State Supreme Court and it’s projected to save at least a million dollars a year.

Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears says the bill has four important goals:

(Sears) "Those goals included maintaining the present system as well as possibly saving money within the system, expanding access to justice to Vermonters and eliminating the closing of the courts. And we think we’ve done that."

(Kinzel) Sears says the current practice of closing courts for a few days a month is unacceptable:

(Sears) "We can’t do that. We just can’t do that. We have to change that – that’s an access to justice issue."

(Kinzel) When the House passed its restructuring bill, it scaled back the responsibilities of assistant judges.  Each county has two elected side judges and they serve as finders of fact in Superior and Family court and they work in Traffic Court. 

Under the House bill, side judges would be allowed to work only on traffic cases. The Senate plan restores all of their responsibilities because Sears says these judges play a critical role.

(Sears) "I think it’s important because that’s a link to the public and these folks are individually elected. They know the communities and in an age when you have judges who rotate there isn’t that same familiarity with the communities. And that’s been a problem for me since they started the rotation."

(Kinzel) Jim Colvin is an assistant judge in Bennington County and the head of Vermont’s Side Judge Association.  He thinks they bring an important perspective to the Court system:

(Colvin) "We’re providing a service to the litigants – giving them an extra pair of ears to be listening to the evidence as it comes forward and allowing some input with the presiding judge to consider different aspects that have been presented to the Court. And I think it’s a safeguard for the litigants to have that on their side."

(Kinzel) The full Senate is expected to vote on this legislation by the middle of next week. If the bill passes the Senate in its current form, it could set up difficult negotiations with the House over the future role of side judges in Vermont.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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