The Judiciary Committee’s proposal — which was quickly reviewed by the Appropriations Committee late last week — will hit the House floor tomorrow and Wednesday.
The 178-page proposal passed out of committee by a 10-0 margin.
In short, the committee's proposal would ensure that each county has a court venue. That means people would not have to travel beyond the county seat in order to seek out a judge. Instead judges will be the ones to travel to the courthouse to hear cases.
Residents in Essex and Grand Isle counties feared they would lose direct access to some court functions as a result of the merger.
Lippert said his committee’s proposal eliminates that fear.
“That is a key commitment that we are putting into statute and that can’t be changed by the Supreme Court,” said Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
The original proposal consolidated court staff and judges and placed two counties —Grand Isle and Essex — at risk of losing jobs. The original proposal also placed most county court staff under the control of the Vermont Supreme Court and stripped away the powers of Vermont’s assistant, or “lay,” judges, and consolidated the state’s probate system into five regions — one that stretched from Grand Isle to Canaan. In all, 14 probate judges would have been reduced to five.
The legislature, instead, wants eight judges seated throughout the state, and seated in smaller, contiguous districts. Six of those judges would work full-time, the other two part-time.
This is how the new probate system would be aligned:
Essex, Caledonia and Orleans counties: one full-time judge
Washington and Lamoille counties: one full-time judge
Franklin and Grand Isle counties: one half-time judge
Chittenden County- one full-time judge
Addison County: one half-time judge
Rutland County: one full-time judge
Bennington and Windham counties: one full-time judge
Windsor and Orange counties: one full-time probate judge
The committee did accept some of the original restructuring recommendations. For example, most county employees will become state employees and under the control of the court administrator’s office, costing the state roughly $1.8 million more, but under this plan the state would collect the $700,000 in small claims fees that go to the counties now, and would save an additional $1 million in staff reorganization.
Allowing the court administrator's office to have more say over all court employees, Lippert said, will allow it the necessary flexibility to move staff from court to court over time based on caseload demand.
The role of the state’s 28 assistant, or “side”, judges would change, if the House plan is approved, although not as much as outlined by the original special commission.
The original idea was to eliminate half of these elected, lay judges and strip the others of their adjudicative duties. The remaining judges – one per county – would simply have control of the county budget and nothing else.
Assistant judges, who are elected, can, if properly trained, preside in traffic court, small claims court and in uncontested divorce cases. But, Lippert said, most do not and it’s up to the discretion of the judges whether they sit on cases or not.
However, rather than eliminate half of them and strip them of all judicial duties, the House proposal sets out to clarify the elected judges' roles and give them more specific tasks.
“They will now be required to have uniform job descriptions,” said Lippert. The only cases they will be allowed to preside over will be in traffic court, said Lippert.
Lippert said placing all 28 assistant judges in traffic court will save the state roughly $100,000.
"It's disappointing to see how the assistant judges are being treated in this proposal. They are essentially relegating us to traffic court and mowing courthouse lawns," said Bennington County Assistant Judge Jim Colvin, who is president of the Vermont Association of County Judges. "They are following an awful lot of the proposal from the commission in terms of the side judges and that's too bad."
Colvin and other assistant judges say their concerns and input were not truly sought by the special judicial commission. He sees it as another snub in a long-time effort to diminish the use of so-called "lay judges" in court proceedings.
Colvin said criticism that assistant judges are inconsistent in what cases they sit on — be it civil or family court cases — has largely been driven by shrinking state budgets.
"They've reduced the amount that the state is willing to pay in per diems to sit in on other cases, so in many cases we've asked our members to be more judicious about sitting on cases so we don't incur those costs," said Colvin. In the FY 09 budget, the assistant judges trimmed $53,000 from a $350,000 allocation from the state to pay for their time to sit on civil, small claims and family court cases.
"They can't cut our budget and then complain that we're not sitting in on cases," said Colvin.
Having assistant judges sit in on small claims court cases has been working in the six counties that currently, by state law, allow such lay judges to adjudicate cases. In recent years the state expanded the role of assistant judges hearing small claims court cases as it was a way to free up the time of presiding judges to handle increasing caseloads in other parts of the system.
"It's been working very well in those six counties, and quite frankly we should be expanding that role not eliminating it," said Colvin. In small claims cases where the amount in question is more than $3500 and below the maximum $5000, a person can request a presiding judge — rather than an assistant judge — hear their claim. Few do, Colvin noted.
Colvin said the assistant judges will plead their case before senators in the coming weeks — a group of lawmakers elected on a county-wide basis and therefore perhaps more in tune with the needs of county courts.
The House committee did take one additional step beyond the commission’s suggestion. Originally, the commission suggested blending family, probate, civil and criminal courts under one Superior Court roof, each of those separate areas as its own division.
Lippert added a fifth division to that idea: Environmental Court.
In all, the restructuring will save the state’s general fund about $1 million, and county taxpayers another $1 million, said Lippert.
Barring any floor amendments, the House plan will be shipped off to the Senate where it will be first taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington).