Disorder in the courts

Friday April 9, 2010

People rarely think about the judicial system until they find themselves inside it. That’s why the effort to restructure Vermont’s judicial system and reduce the responsibilities of assistant judges has attracted little attention.

Supporters say combining the state’s District, Superior, Family, Environmental and Probate courts into a single administrative entity under the jurisdiction of the Vermont Supreme Court would help streamline operations and save the state more than $1 million a year.

The proposed changes basically come in two parts. The bill that the House passed last month that would eliminate many of the responsibilities of the state’s 28 elected assistant, or side, judges.

The side judge is unique to Vermont’s judicial system. No other state has them, but the founders of Vermont thought them so important that they created the position in the state’s constitution.

Each county elects two of them, and since they usually have no formal legal training, these positions are intended to provide a lay perspective to supplement that of professional judges.

Side judges have input only on matters of fact in Family and Superior courts, with legal decisions left to the judge. However, the vote of a side judge has the same weight as that of the judge, so two side judges can, in theory, outvote the judge.

Under the House bill, side judges would no longer sit as fact-finders in family and civil cases, but instead be assigned to adjudicate traffic cases. They would also lose much of their administrative power over county courts.

The House bill also calls for consolidating the 14-county probate court system into an eight-district framework and reduce the number of probate judges from 14 to six full-time and two part-time. Supporters say that with small caseloads in many counties, the state is spending more than necessary on courts largely dedicated to resolving wills and estate issues.

Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber is pushing hard for the plan. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that current budget cuts have forced the courts to be closed two and a half days a month, which is causing delays of important cases.

"We are facing a compromise in the application of the rule of law in this state in a proportion that is unthinkable," Reiber said.

Reiber is urging the Senate to support the House bill, which he says is needed to ensure consistent management at the state and county level, as well as enough cost savings to eliminate the furlough days for court personnel.

There is not that much argument about consolidating the management of the state’s courts. There is, however, much disagreement over diminishing the role of side judges.

As the only elected members of the judiciary, side judges are there to represent the people of the county which elected them and to add another layer between judge and jury to provide input in court decisions. While presiding judges are often rotated around the state, side judges maintain continuity in county courts.

Far from being an anachronism, side judges play an important role the Vermont judicial system, one which deserves to be preserved.


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