Panel would cut Windham probate judges from 5 to 1

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BRATTLEBORO -- One recommendation being considered by a commission created by the Legislature to review the state’s judicial system is to reduce the number of probate judges in southern Vermont from five to one.

Later this week, the commission will vote on whether to recommend to the Legislature that Vermont’s probate judge count be reduced from 17 to five.

The commission was charged with the task of finding inefficiencies in the court system and recommending ways to eliminate them in order to reduce the judiciary’s budget.

The proposed recommendations have been met with objections from probate judges and trust administrators around the state who contend the changes would inconvenience petitioners, make the courts less familiar with the needs of the populace and overload the remaining judges with too much work.

In an article in the Fall 2009 Vermont Bar Journal, Probate Judges Joanne Ertel and George Belcher wrote that the process behind the commission’s deliberations are of a "flawed nature," the data it relied on were inaccurate and it failed to "adequately weigh the consequences of the recommendations."

Ertel told the Reformer that their article speaks for itself.

"We are speaking from the heart," she said.

The Supreme Court was tasked with establishing the commission, which did not include a probate judge, a registrar or an attorney who practices on a regular basis in the probate courts.

"It is ironic that a commission whose purported goal was to unify the judiciary would exclude a component of the judiciary from the process of unification," wrote Ertel and Belcher.

Ertel and Belcher also contended there was very little opportunity for people to participate in the process, with meetings that weren’t warned, no public meetings in the first months of deliberation and no minutes available until September, five months after the process began.

Probate court case loads were compared to those in criminal and family courts, which don’t have the same number of hearings in between opening and closure, stated Ertel and Belcher.

"A guardianship for a disabled adult may last for the entire life of the person ... and may require many hearings ..." they wrote.

Ertel and Belcher identified what they consider other problems with the proposed recommendations.

Those included that the work of probate court staff would be assumed by Superior Court staff.

The judge were also concerned that the five remaining probate judges would have to spend more time on the road or that the public would have to travel to the judges to have their cases heard.

Supreme Court Justice Paul Reiber said the commission did discuss whether to include a probate judge as well as a side judge and a county clerk among others.

Instead, the commission decided to take a "fresh look" at the problems and possible solutions.

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The 15 members of the commission included two from the Supreme Court, two were trial judges and one was the Secretary of State.

Patricia Gabel, of the Supreme Court, said even though probate judges weren’t members of the commission, they were included in the discussion.

"We met with 80 groups and 800 people," she said.

"There’s been ample opportunity for comment," said Stephan Morse, a commission member and former House Speaker in the State Legislature. Those opportunities included surveys and focus groups, he said.

Robert Pu, the probate judge for the district of Marlboro, which includes much of southeastern Windham County, said he agreed with the points made by Ertel and Belcher. He was especially upset that no probate judges were on the commission.

"For you to suggest we’re not capable of putting aside our personal loyalties is very insulting," said Pu. "We should have been allies in this. They forced us to become adversaries."

Pu, who has been a probate judge for 24 years, said no one on the commission understood how the probate system works until they had already started the process.

"They never fully understood the whole thing," he said. "We think the product is flawed.

Under the draft plan, Rutland, Windham and Winsdor counties would be consolidated. The Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Springfield and Woodstock probate judges would be eliminated and one judge would take over those duties.

"Even if that one judge spends one day a week at those four courts you have to hear the cases, process the documents and somewhere in between write the orders," said Pu. "There are some cases you can’t hear in one day."

But Reiber, Gabel and Morse insisted that case-load studies concluded five judges are enough to hear the state’s probate cases.

Chittenden County’s probate court hears 700 cases a year, said Morse, the same number as all of the rest of the probate courts in the state together.

If the commission’s recommendations are accepted, he said, a judge’s time will be allocated where it is most needed, with technology being a major part of the equation.

The current system, said Morse, is not efficient because most of the probate courts don’t have adequate Internet access and clerks must file case paperwork by hand.

The commission’s proposal would save $1 million in state funds and $1 million in county funds each year, said Reiber. The decisions reached by the commission were difficult to achieve, he said, because the probate court plays a fundamental role in everyday life.

"Birth, death and marriage," he said.

"I have tremendous respect for the probate judges," said Reiber. "They are very dedicated."


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