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Area lawyers decry cuts to Vermont judiciary

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Members of Addison County’s legal community gathered on Monday to protest the recent elimination of the local Probation and Parole office and marshal opposition to what they fear could be a further, budget-driven reductions in services at the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury.

The meeting, organized by the Addison County Bar Association, drew a diverse assortment of lawyers, court workers, legislators, prosecutors and human services providers. Participants said they want to be proactive in lobbying against further cuts in the judiciary that they believe could affect citizens’ access to justice.

“As members of the legal community, we are very concerned a lot of the reports that are being put out about cuts and the effects they would have in the court system, and rumors that this courthouse could be on the chopping block sometime in the future,” said attorney Sandra M. Lee, president of the local bar. “When this came to our attention, it also became apparent that it’s not just the courthouse and the court services in Addison County that are in jeopardy, but also local (human) services.”

The Addison County Probation and Parole office closed in late January, one of several fiscal year 2009 state budget rescissions announced by the Douglas administration. The five local Probation and Parole staff have since been assigned to offices in Rutland and Burlington. They currently deliver services two days per week at the Frank Mahady Courthouse.

Opponents of the move have argued the cut saves few dollars — Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, has mentioned the figure of $15,000 — at a time when the Legislature and Gov. James Douglas just approved a new law cracking down on sex offenders. The county Probation and Parole office was monitoring more than 100 high-risk offenders.

Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito is scheduled to visit the Frank Mahady Courthouse at 1 p.m. on Monday, March 16, to discuss the Probation and Parole office cut.

The county has been asked to take on other cuts to its judicial system, noted Jewett, a veteran member of the House Judiciary Committee. Addison County — and indeed all counties throughout Vermont — are implementing five court furlough days through the balance of fiscal year 2009 (which ends June 30). Those furloughs affect judges and court managers — anyone earning more than $60,000 annually.

During the weeks in which there is no furlough, Addison County District and Family courts are closed on Wednesday afternoons.

“We are up to almost a day per week that the courts are not fully open,” Jewett said. “The Constitution doesn’t allow us to deliver 90 percent of the court system; you’ve got to deliver 100 percent of a court system.”

While Jewett believes the courts are positioned to get through fiscal year 2009 in decent financial shape, the news is not so good for fiscal year 2010.

Gov. Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, is proposing a fiscal year 2010 judiciary budget of approximately $36 million. The judiciary believes it needs around $37 million.

Bob Paolini, executive director of the Vermont Bar Association, on Monday described one scenario state officials are considering to fill the $1,064,000 budget gap — 12 court furlough days (one per month) affecting all court employees during the course of the fiscal year.

“It would affect all employees,” Paolini said. “It is not a great solution. I think you’re going to see an increase in backlog (of court work) and a delay in delivery of justice. That doesn’t serve the public.”

Vermont Supreme Court Justice Paul L. Reiber, in a rare speech to the Legislature, recently appealed for more time to restructure the state’s court system, a process that could lead to lower operating costs.

The Vermont Commission on Judicial Operation is currently studying how the state’s court system runs and will propose ways it can be streamlined. The commission — created by the Legislature — has been specifically charged with examining:

• Consolidation of court staff.

• Regionalization of court administrative functions, at the state and county levels.

• How to use technology — including video — to reduce unnecessary court expenditures.

• Flexibility in the use of resources to respond to the demands of the overall operation of the judiciary. In other words, if caseloads spike at one courthouse, workers from another courthouse could be temporarily shifted to deal with the added work.

• Reallocation of jurisdiction between courts to ensure more efficient operation of the system.

Plans call for lawmakers to draft bills based on the commission’s recommendations, with the new court system changes to take effect in January of 2010.

“The vision is to make a 21st-century court system out of what is probably a 19th-century model,” Paolini said. “We have 63 different courts in this state in 32 buildings in 14 towns. I would suggest — and I actually said to the Senate Appropriations Committee — ‘If you guys were writing the Constitution and designing the court system now, I don’t think you’d make it look the way it looks.’”

Paolini said there is no discussion in the Statehouse at this point about closing any of Vermont’s courthouses. Douglas, during an interview last week at the Addison Independent, said he would not support a recommendation to close Addison County’s courthouse. He did, however, endorse the closing of the county’s Probation and Parole office as part of a series of “tough decisions” he said need to be made to carry the state through the current recession.

But participants at Monday’s meetings noted some of the “tough decisions” may backfire financially in the long-run. For example, closing the Probation and Parole office has raised concerns about offenders violating the terms of their parole because they cannot get to Rutland and Burlington, thereby running the risk of landing in jail at a greater cost to taxpayers. The cut is also making things more challenging for some local human services agencies that closely partnered with Probation and Parole — such as WomenSafe and the state Department of Children and Families.

Lee added she is concerned other county services may be shifted north or south in wake of the Probation and Parole move.

“In our last Bar meeting, one of the concerns raised was the ‘domino’ effect that could take place,” Lee said.

Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, said he shares Lee’s concern. He said the mentality in the Statehouse right now seems to be to cut, rather than doing the “tough work” it takes to look carefully at budget adjustments that could deliver services more efficiently as opposed to eliminating programs.

Fisher, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, also encouraged human service agency officials to communicate their budget priorities to state budget writers as soon as possible. The House, he said, will likely get its first glimpse of a draft 2010 spending plan within three weeks. And for the first time, it’s a budget that will be crafted from “scratch,” as opposed to the usual practice of building it based on the governor’s proposal.

Fisher said it’s likely he and his colleagues will propose raising new revenue to aid the fiscal year 2010 budget. Douglas has said he is opposed to raising taxes.

“Part of the story that will unfold is, what type of revenue package we put together and how does the governor deal with it?” Fisher said.

 

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