A four-year, $13.5 million plan to help Vermont’s court system emerge from the pandemic could involve after-hours court sessions on nights and weekends.
That has prosecutors and defense attorneys worried.
Patricia Gabel, Vermont’s court administrator, presented the package Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It includes added staffing, boosts in technology and bringing in retired judges to help deal with an expected backlog of court cases.
In the judicial emergency declared early last year at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, all but emergency court proceedings were brought to a halt, including jury trials in criminal and civil courts.
Now, trials can resume in the more spacious courtrooms across the state.
“We believe there is also a backlog in as-yet-unfiled cases,” Gabel wrote in response to a VTDigger inquiry. “The National Center for State Courts call these the ‘shadow’ cases that are likely to surge for a variety of reasons … cases in the civil docket, particularly pent-up eviction and foreclosure cases, abuse and neglect cases, and domestic relations cases.”
The $13,594,125 plan unveiled Wednesday spans four fiscal years and would be funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act. It includes the possibility of holding court at night and on weekends, because Vermont has only a limited number of courtrooms and a huge backlog of court cases.
Gabel told lawmakers that weekend and night court sessions are only a possibility, and more discussion would be needed with other stakeholders about pursuing such an “experiment” in the court system.
“One of the barriers to expediting in-person jury trials is the limitation of courtroom time,” the court proposal stated. “Extending the time during which routine case events can be docketed and status conferences, nonevidentiary hearings, and possible other court proceedings can be held would, through the use of remote technology, free up time and space to handle in-person jury trials during the day and may allow a greater number of cases to be heard.”
Defender General Matthew Valerio told the committee Wednesday that he’s already having trouble finding public defenders to staff regular business hours, and after-hours shifts would only exacerbate the problem.
“I understand the need to get at this backlog,” he said. “We have an extraordinarily difficult time hiring anybody under normal circumstances. The possibility of night court or weekend court or the like, I’m more concerned about getting people to do the work.”
Valerio said more funding wouldn’t necessarily help.
“I’m just concerned about if there are lawyers that exist who are ready, willing and competent to do the work,” he said. “Even if you throw $10 million at the defense system, I don’t think I could find the people to work, even if I had the money.”
John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, echoed Valerio’s comments. His department already has five vacant prosecutor positions across the state
“At our current personnel level we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Campbell said of night and weekend court sessions. “We definitely need more people just to keep the wheels turning.”
Valerio asked Gabel how serious the court system was about holding weekend and night proceedings.
“We wouldn’t do that unless we had been able to work out with the various stakeholders and justice partners a plan that would work,” Gabel replied.
Other highlights of the $13.5 million four-year court plan include:
- $1,050,000 to bring in retired judges to hear cases.
- $740,000 for added docket clerks.
- $370,000 for added court officers.
- $275,000 for cellphones and Chromebooks to enable remote access to court proceedings and access to court services.
The backlog isn’t just in jury trials.
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan expressed concern Wednesday about the number of people charged with crimes who are awaiting competency evaluations.
The judiciary has also been dealing with a large increase in requests to expunge old court cases, stemming from recent changes in the law. Of the 15,146 expungements that the courts began to process in October 2019, 5,695 cases remain to be expunged, according to a document presented to the committee Wednesday. An additional 5,332 marijuana convictions have yet to be expunged pursuant to a law passed in 2020.
Committee Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Wednesday the panel is open to anything that will help address the backlog.
“There is no question that Vermonters are going to be adversely affected if they can’t access the criminal and civil justice systems,” he said. “By September, we’re going to have to be able to handle a deluge.“
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