Commission on Judicial
Frequently Asked Questions
Vermonters can no longer afford the inefficiencies of our outdated court system. Vermont currently operates 62 different courts at over 30 different sites. Some of these courts have small caseloads and are therefore much costlier to operate. The court system has responded to state budget shortfalls by furloughing employees and closing courts statewide for 2 ½ days each month. This is a short-term response to what will be a long-term budget problem, and results in limited access to justice. The proposed restructuring offers a more comprehensive approach that will not only save taxpayers money, but will also bring the courts up to date with new technologies that will make it easier for Vermonters to access the judicial system. The Judiciary branch simply won’t be able to meet its constitutional responsibilities to Vermonters without making these changes.
The Vermont Judiciary is being challenged to reduce the total budget for Judicial Branch Services by very large and unprecedented amounts. Current statutes block the Supreme Court from making necessary changes to this system to preserve Vermonters’ access to courts, while at the same time saving money. As a result, Vermont courts are now closed 2 ½ days per month, which is over 10% of the normal working hours of operation.
There are currently forty (40) positions being held vacant, which represents roughly 12% of currently-authorized staff, while some courts remain over-staffed based on relative need.
During the 2009 Legislative session, with revenues still falling off a cliff, the Legislature charged the Commission on Judicial Operation with identifying an additional $1 million in FY10 budget reductions over and above the most recent budget reductions suffered by the Judiciary. On October 2, 2009, all agencies and branches of state government were asked by the Executive Branch how they would manage if there were an 8% budget reduction across state government from FY2010 levels. It is unclear what the outcome of this budget exercise will be or what the impact will be on the Judicial Branch. What is clear is that the Supreme Court must have the flexibility it needs to responsibly manage the court system through difficult times.
During the 2008 legislative session, the Legislature asked the Supreme Court to appoint a Commission on Judicial Operation composed of members of the three branches of government and the citizens of Vermont. The Legislature asked the Commission to make recommendations regarding a number of topics, such as consolidation of staff [including clerks of courts], regionalization of court administrative functions currently performed at the state and county levels, use of technology, flexibility in use of resources to respond to varying demands on the judiciary, reallocation of jurisdiction between courts, and any other ideas for the efficient and effective delivery of judicial services.
The Commission’s recommendations for restructuring the court system identify the need to preserve and improve local access to justice for court users.
Local access means that, in each county, there should be a place where court users may obtain information, file papers, obtain appropriate referrals, and receive pro se assistance for all dockets—civil, criminal, family, and probate. The court staff should be knowledgeable about all dockets and/or be able to make appropriate referrals to people with knowledge. They must be capable and willing to provide information and to otherwise assist those who participate in court proceedings without lawyers, as other members of the public.
The Commission also recommends that, in addition to the basic information available at all courts and the possible establishment of an 800 number, the Court Administrator’s office should create a service center for self-represented litigants [“litigant service center”] in each major court center, and a network of services in more rural areas, possibly utilizing public libraries. The litigant service center is a key building block to supporting access to justice for self-represented litigants and has been used successfully in other state judicial systems.
In addition, the Judiciary has a unique opportunity to improve judicial services, greatly increase access to justice and implement efficiencies that will reduce costs over time, all through the introduction of new technologies.
Neither voters nor town governments have the power to control county spending or taxes at the county level. Assistant judges establish county budgets and present them once per year. The assistant judges set their own county-based compensation. No vote or further approval is required. The costs are then added by the towns as a levy that accompanies the town's property taxes.
Convert County paid employees that perform judicial functions and are necessary to staff the new configured superior court
Reduce middle management positions
Reallocate revenue from Small Claims Filing Fees
Reduce services in Grand Isle and Essex counties
Consolidate Probate Court
Assistant Judge: Net Savings
 The total cost of all employees in the superior courts paid for by the county is $2,333,000. Some of those employees perform non-court related county functions such as passports. Some represent middle managers whose positions would be eliminated by the reduction in middle management resulting from consolidation of the four trial courts and reduction in services in Grand Isle and Essex. When these personnel costs are deducted from $2,333,000, the balance is $1,896,405.
The proposals recommend reducing court staff and operations in those two counties as a result of the relatively few cases filed there. Access to judicial services would be maintained in the two counties by having a single court staff person available in each of the current courthouses to accept filings and provide information, with additional services to be available in neighboring county courthouses serving a larger part of the population.
Judges, along with necessary support staff, could still travel to these county courthouses when justified or made necessary by a particular case.
The Commission has adopted Principles for Administration of the Judiciary that call for all judges to be attorneys. This is based on the widely held belief, shared by those who participated in focus groups and surveys, that Vermonters deserve judicial decisions to be made by persons who are legally educated to resolve their disputes in court. Small claims and traffic litigants may not have as much at stake as clients in larger superior court cases, those accused in criminal court, or aggrieved parents in family court, but these litigants still deserve their legal disputes to be decided by a judge trained as a lawyer. Small claims cases and traffic offenses are important to the people facing the consequences, and principles of equal justice dictate that their cases by judged by lawyers rather than lay people. Assistant judges are dedicated public servants, but are not trained as lawyers and should not be relied upon for legal analysis