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March 30, 2010

Senate Balks at House Plan to Restructure Judiciary

The Senate made quick work of the House's months-long effort to make sweeping changes to Vermont's judicial system.

Just days after the House overwhelmingly supported a House Judiciary Committee bill to restructure the state's court system, the Senate undid several key components.

The House bill included a complete reconfiguration of the state's probate courts and an elimination of many tasks assigned to assistant judges. These latter lay judges, otherwise known as "side judges" are elected — two per county — and sit alongside presiding judges in Superior Court. They can also, with proper training, sit in small claims court, traffic court, and preside over uncontested divorce cases.

The House bill eliminated most, if not all, of the assistant judges duties — relegating them to administering the county budget and sitting in traffic court.

The House bill also reconfigured the Probate Court districts from 14 to eight. Initially, a special judicial commission wanted to reduce that to five districts.

The Senate, however, isn't buying into the idea that the changes — stripping away the powers of assistant judges (who are identified in Vermont's constitution) reducing the number of probate judges and shuffling staffers from the county payroll to the state payroll — will realize more than $1 million in savings, as anticipated.

"I think our approach is to try to get to the $1 million in state savings and that's we've all agreed to at this point, and the question is how to get get from here to there," said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "My committee in particular and the senate as a whole has a concern about taking away judicial duties outright from the assistant judges and writing job descriptions from them."

Sears said taking $700,000 in small claims court fees and giving it over to the state may not save the money it's intended. "The county courts still have their own bills to pay for heat and lights, so I'm not sure that will save the system."

Sears did say his committee would like to see the state move toward a unified court system to help combat more long-term issues related to staffing, record-keeping and overall management.

The committee will take testimony on the restructuring proposals this week. Chief Justice Paul Reiber will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning.

I didn't like the senate bill, don't like the idea of undermining the authority of a constitutional office by a means other than amending the Vermont constitution, don't like the idea of reducing the number of probate judges. Let's put the bill on hold and study it a bit further...

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