(Host) When you hear the words ‘Vermont Supreme Court,’ you may think about black robes, woody chambers and quiet and learned deliberations. Now think “dot-com.” Add to your thoughts the latest technology, instant access to information, biographies of the justices, their opinions … and now their voices on-line.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports our story.
(Gavel sounds at start of session.)
(Zind) This week, the Vermont Supreme Court was in session hearing arguments on a number of cases. But you didn’t have to go to the courthouse in Montpelier to hear the justices spar with the lawyers. (Sound of lawyer and justice in discussion.) The Supreme Court proceedings are online, posted at the Vermont judiciary’s website. The audio from the sessions is the latest addition to the website, which has earned national recognition.
According to Court Administrator Lee Suskin, the site tries to meet the needs of everyone from the lawyers who argue before the court, to people who want to pay a traffic ticket.
(Suskin) “We have sophisticated users and we have unsophisticated users. And we try to say OK, there are different ways to access the same site based on level of understanding or how people think.”
(Zind) Beyond it’s practical usefulness, the Vermont Judiciary website offers insight into an institution that has a profound effect on our lives, but that most of us know little about.
There are transcripts of speeches by justices, copies of Supreme Court rulings, and bar exam questions and answers. According to Justice John Dooley, there’s a larger purpose behind making all this information available.
(Dooley) “In many ways, of course we’re the most secretive part of government. Decisions are made in private. But we want to be as open as we possibly can. There are many reasons why it’s very important that citizens understand us.”
(Zind) Dooley says in the next few months significantly more information about specific court cases will be added to the website. He says much of it has always been available, but until now, getting at it has been difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the court system.
(Dooley) “It’s time and effort. Go to a courthouse, it has normal business hours open, you have to be there during that period of time, you have to ask for the information, you have to spend time pawing through paper. All of these kinds of reasons meant that while the data is publicly available in theory, in practice it really hasn’t been.”
(Zind) Dooley says several years ago when Vermont court officials began to develop a website containing vast volumes of information, they realized they had to first decide what to make public and what to keep private. Surprisingly, Dooley says some basic privacy issues had never before been adequately addressed.
(Dooley) “One of the greatest challenges was to deal with a subject that should have been dealt with a long time ago, which is how do we balance privacy and access in this immense base of information we have on people? We probably have the largest single database about state government on people and businesses and activities of government on all levels and because of the nature of our business. It’s often about particularly private and sometimes quite embarrassing information about people. That’s why they’re in court.”
(Zind) Dooley says the court has developed rules governing what should be made public with an eye toward making as much information available as possible. With those rules in place, Lee Suskin says the court is ready to expand the website, making possible even greater communication and information sharing between Vermonters and the court system.
(Suskin) “It’s a work in progress. I expect that in the long run, this is the way the courts will do business with the rest of the world…. It’s generally applying all of the principles of e-commerce, or e-government into e-judiciary.”
(Zind) Suskin says use of the court website is increasing. There were more than 60,000 visitors to the site in a recent month. The address is www.vermontjudiciary.org.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind at the Supreme Court in Montpelier.