Vt. judiciary looks to consolidate its court system

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(Host) Leaders of the Vermont judiciary say the state needs to consolidate its court system in order to save money.

Chief Justice Paul Reiber also wants more autonomy from the legislative budget writing process. He says the changes are needed to have an independent, well-funded judiciary.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Chief Justice Reiber spoke before a special legislative committee charged with finding efficiencies in state government.

Reiber told the committee that Vermont’s court system is extremely inefficient. It’s a hybrid of county and state government services, he said, with at least four courts operating in each county.  But Reiber said that means that the state Supreme Court – which oversees the system – is often unable to control costs.

(Reiber) It worked fine when the state had enough money to pay for it, and to pay for all the services that were being provided by the judiciary. It doesn’t work now.

(Dillon) A commission that’s looking to save $1.5 million next year in court costs has suggested that the state and county courts be managed as one system.

Reiber says the current system produces some strangely bureaucratic results. For example, the counties own the copiers in its courts, but the state pays for the paper.

(Reiber) We are not interested in taking over county government in any way shape or form. What we’re interested in doing is consolidating all the state’s resources that are dedicated to judicial services under the authority of the Supreme Court so there is one management structure. And efficiencies can be realized without having to negotiate with 14 separate counties.

(Dillon) The consolidation plan would target side judges; these are elected positions usually filled by non-lawyers. Side judges handle uncontested divorces and preside over some traffic cases.

Reiber said the proposal would remove the judicial authority from the side judges; instead they would serve as elected officers of the county. The state would save money because it would no longer have to pay the side judges’ salaries.

But the proposal on side judges may run into opposition in the Legislature. Essex Orleans Senator Vince Illuzzi said the elected judges actually save the system money.

(Illuzzi) When the Legislature does the math and determines that assistant judges are handling a variety of cases around the state at a fraction of the cost of what it would take a law judge to handle and doing so in an efficient and timely basis, there may be a push back to expand the role of the assistant judges instead of eliminating it.

(Dillon) But Reiber told lawmakers that the Supreme Court needs more independence from the Legislature to manage budgets and personnel.

(Reiber) The problem we face right now is that because of all the laws and statutes on the books our structure and our operations on a day to day basis is just too intertwined in politics. The judiciary needs to be separate from the political branches. We need to have more self-determination than we have right now.

(Dillon) The chief justice said the unified court system was allowed under a constitutional amendment passed in the 1970s. But the changes never happened, because the statutes were not amended to combine county and state courts.

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

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