Some COVID Protocols, Remote Hearings Remain in Place
As Vermont celebrates more than 80 percent of its residents having at least one dose of the highly effective COVID-19 vaccine, Vermont’s Supreme Court has opened access to most courthouses to members of the public beginning July 6. Many of the COVID protocols courts have had in place since the beginning of the pandemic will remain for some time, however.
“Not all Vermonters who come to court have a choice about how long they must remain there or with how many people they must be in close proximity,” said Patricia Gabel, Vermont State Court Administrator. “To keep everyone safe, we will require people who have business with the Judiciary to wear masks, to social distance, and to answer health screening questions when they enter our courthouses,” she explained.
Gabel encouraged visitors who will be participating in a court proceeding to bring a copy of their COVID-19 vaccination record to court with them if they wish to seek permission from a judge to take a mask off in a courtroom during a proceeding, as some judges may inquire about vaccination status. Providing vaccination records for review by a judge during a proceeding is not required and is completely voluntary.
“If a judge in a particular courtroom determines that all parties in a hearing or other proceeding are vaccinated, that judge has discretion to allow people to unmask during that proceeding while in that room,” she added. “We ask that those people re-don masks before leaving that area.” Judges also have discretion to modify the default rule regarding social distancing within their individual courtrooms. The general rule is that people will wear masks in the courtroom and socially distance unless a judge permits them otherwise.
Gabel said that although the Judiciary is allowing more Vermonters into its buildings through a deliberate and phased expansion, the courts will continue to hold remote hearings.
“Remote hearings have many benefits,” she noted. “They’re efficient, more convenient for many, and virtually risk-free from disease transmission. We may continue them indefinitely,” she remarked, noting that decisions have yet to be made about which kinds of cases and proceedings are best suited to being handled remotely.
She reminded Vermonters to look at any notice they were sent by the courts.
“If that notice states a hearing will be remote, please follow the instructions in the notice even after July 6, when more hearings will begin to be scheduled in person,” she related.
Although most courthouses will now be open as of July 6, some will remain closed. This is because these buildings are too small to allow for social distancing or lack air quality systems capable of recirculating air to stem the spread of disease. The work required to open the remaining closed courthouses is ongoing.
The following courthouses will remain closed until the Judiciary determines they’re safe for public proceedings:
Bennington (Civil and Probate divisions)
Essex (all divisions)
Franklin (Civil and Probate divisions)
Grand Isle (all divisions)
Orleans (Family, Civil, and Probate divisions)
Orleans (Criminal division)
Washington (Civil and Probate divisions)
Windham (Civil division)
Windsor (Criminal and Family divisions, Judicial Bureau)
Gabel noted that just because a building is not open to the public does not mean the courts are not able to provide services. In addition to continuing to hold remote hearings, she indicated that court records are available from courts throughout the state, regardless of their status. She directed anyone needing copies of a court record to follow the established protocol, by completing a request using a form found on the Judiciary’s website on the “Where to Find Forms, How to File Documents, and How to Request Court Records” link of the Covid page of the Judiciary’s website at https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/covid19. The addresses of the courts that are closed are also listed on this page, and the page will be updated each time another courthouse is opened.