Supreme Court 'in action' in Newfane
NEWFANE -- Wednesday marked the third time that James Valente argued before the Vermont Supreme Court. But it was the first time the Brattleboro attorney could do so in the same Newfane courtroom where he was married.
"I've had a lot of big experiences here," Valente said a few hours after he participated in arguments for PH West Dover Property LLC vs. Barbara Walowit Realty.
That case was one of six on the docket Wednesday as the state's high court made a visit to the Windham Superior Court Civil Division courthouse in Newfane.
The court annually hears arguments outside its home base in Montpelier. Supreme Court justices last traveled in September 2009 to the historic Newfane courthouse, which dates to 1825.
"This is a beloved courthouse for many of us," Chief Justice Paul Reiber said.
Reiber joined Associate Justices John Dooley, Marilyn Skoglund, Beth Robinson and Geoffrey Crawford -- the Supreme Court's newest addition -- in presiding over the high-ceilinged, second-floor courtroom.
Judge Harold Eaton of Orange County sat in on three cases where another justice had been disqualified.
The justices sat close together under portraits of two local legal luminaries from the 1800s: Roswell Martin Field, a Newfane native, state legislator and state's attorney who later was involved in the famed Dred Scott slavery case; and Daniel Kellogg, a state's attorney, state legislator, U.S. attorney, member of the Vermont Constitutional Convention and state Supreme Court judge.
About 40 people attended the session, with old benches and wooden chairs creaking under attorneys and observers. Students from Stratton and Putney also participated.
Among the local residents in the gallery was Barbara Moseley of Vernon.
"I had never seen the Supreme Court in action," said Moseley, a member of the Vernon Historians. "I just thought, as a citizen, I'd like to have that experience."
Moseley thought the justices "certainly seemed intent and wrapped up in their work."
State Rep. Tim Goodwin, whose district includes Jamaica, Londonderry and Stratton, thought the session seemed both structured and more casual than he had expected.
Goodwin made the morning drive to Newfane from his home in Weston.
"It's a lot closer to me than Montpelier," he said.
That's the idea behind the court's travels.
Newfane-based state Rep. Dick Marek, who, like Goodwin, serves on the state House Judiciary Committee, is well-versed in the workings of the state's justice system. But he was appreciative of the high court's trip south.
"It really brings this process into public visibility," Marek said. "And it gives people a sense of how this system operates."
In order to do that, the justices ran through a series of oral arguments on cases ranging from property and family disputes to a legal battle over a drunken New Year's Eve brawl at a Springfield Moose Lodge.
Valente's case led off the day. He was joined by Brattleboro attorney Thomas Costello in representing the purchasers of a West Dover Inn who claim they should have been informed of roof repairs needed at the former Four Seasons property.
"They knew that there were leaks in a couple spots, and there was flashing that needed to be replaced," Valente said.
What they didn't know, Valente told the justices, was that 6,600-square-feet of roofing needed to be replaced. The appellants claim that the sellers' real-estate agent should have disclosed an estimate for roof repairs as well as information about flooding and mold in the basement.
Skoglund asked why the onus was not on the buyers to have conducted their own "due diligence" survey of the property.
"This was a major purchase," she said.
But Valente argued that his clients -- who are seeking reversal of the lower court's summary judgment in favor of the real-estate agent -- did not have the proper information to make an accurate assessment of necessary repairs.
"What the seller's agent did here was omit a material fact," Valente said.
Brattleboro attorney Potter Stewart (whose own father served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981), representing the real-estate agent, argued that the lower court's ruling in his client's favor should stand.
"It was well-reasoned, and it was appropriate under the circumstances," Stewart said.
Stewart said no expert had determined that the extensive roofing work was necessary. But he also said a report received by the buyers noted three times that some roof repairs would be required.
"They received the report, they had an opportunity to act and they chose not to act,'" Stewart said. "Now, they're blaming the poor Realtor, who isn't even their own agent, for this transaction which unfortunately did not work out."
Stewart also questioned the relevance of what he characterized as a $5,000 roof-repair job for an inn valued at $1.2 million.
The justices hear arguments and then issue a ruling at a later date. The Supreme Court's opinions are available online at www.vermontjudiciary.org/GTC/Supreme.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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