Small Counties Fight Changes To Judicial System

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(Host) For two years now, a commission created by the Vermont Legislature has been looking for ways to deliver judicial services more efficiently and affordably across the state. 

The hope is to save almost $2.5 million, in part by using more technology, consolidating probate courts, and reducing the roles of assistant judges.

In Vermont’s two smallest counties, the commission proposes cutting staff and moving most judicial hearings to larger, neighboring counties. 

But as VPR’s Charlotte Albright reports, political leaders in Essex and Grand Isle counties are battling the plan.

(Sound of bell ringing)

(Albright) On a sunny winter day in Guildhall, Assistant Judge Allen Hodgdon rings the verdict bell from the tower of an historic white frame courthouse rising from the town common. 

Hodgdon is also an architectural historian. He says the bell is largely ornamental now, but old timers tell him they used to rush out of their houses and into the courthouse to hear the outcome of a local trial.  

Hodgdon didn’t go to law school, but he believes he has the fairness, common sense, and compassion that his neighbors expect. For over a century now, every Vermont county has elected two lay judges responsible for maintaining the courthouse and  supervising the staff and sheriff. In addition, the state pays so-called "side judges" $142 a day to help determine matters of fact – not matters of law – in certain cases.

(Hodgdon) "I think those qualities are essential, whether you are a lay judge or an attorney judge and I don’t believe that an attorney would give you a leg up on any of those aspects. So I think that’s what’s important and I do believe the average Vermonter does know and have some concept of what justice is and who they want to hear their cases. So I think it’s vital that we continue to have elected judges in our court system."

(Albright) The Commission on Judicial Operations wants to eliminate the judicial duties of elected assistant judges. The Commission says that would save the state about $288,000, though counties would still have to pay assistant judges to administer court functions and supervise sheriffs.

Counties also cover the costs of keeping courthouses open. But in Essex and Grand Isle counties, about ten paid court staffers would lose their jobs because most hearings would be moved to Chittenden or Caledonia counties.

Commission member and Vermont Bar Association President Eileen Blackwood says Vermont’s smallest counties pay too many staffers to handle too few cases.

(Blackwood) "The changes that will allow the Supreme Court to have a unified system and bring the county systems and the probate courts into the entire judiciary system are necessary in order for the court to have the flexibility it needs in order to adjust to financial difficulties."

(Clark) "This is definitely, as we see it, a power grab by the Supreme Court and I think what is being used is the current economic crisis in the state to mask that power grab."

(Albright) Ed Clark, who lives kitty-corner from the Guildhall courthouse, chairs the Essex County Democratic Party. He and his Republican counterpart, Ken Copp, are waging a rare bi-partisan battle against the commission’s restructuring plan.

(Clark) "And I think the centralization, the taking over of the courts by a few individuals, will be a disaster for Vermont. It flies in the face of our history, our traditions. It flies in the face of local control. It flies in the face of justice itself.

(Albright) Clark believes that there are better ways to save millions of dollars by, for example, collecting delinquent court fees, or even reducing the number of Supreme Court justices from five to three.

He notes that the state pays no rent for the Essex County Courthouse, and if only one staffer remains there, he says it will be, in effect, like closing it. That, he fears, will hurt the local general store that’s being renovated, and even the Post Office. 

Clark also vehemently objects to making new, larger probate court districts that could force litigants to drive across the state to be served. He thinks if anyone has to travel, it should be the lawyers.

(Clark) "Who for their own convenience may not want to travel to Grand Isle and Essex counties. But the court system wasn’t set up for the convenience of defense attorneys. It was set up to dispense justice to our citizens."

(Albright) The commission’s Eileen Blackwood says she understands why both Essex and Grand Isle counties oppose staff cuts and consolidation.  But she says failing to economize in the smallest counties could mean more closures and furloughs in district and family courts, statewide.

(Blackwood) "Those are the ones that are getting most affected by court closings and furloughs. So another million dollars in the absence of these changes is going to mean probably at least a continuation and probably an increase in those furlough days and court closings, which is what I think nobody wants to happen.

(Albright) The House Judiciary Committee has been making some changes in the bill, which is expected to reach the House floor sometime in the next few weeks.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright, in Guildhall.

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