Vermont: Restructuring an entire state’s judiciary

For nearly a century, the states have debated whether and to what extent their state court systems should be unified. Even the word itself has been the subject of ontological discourse (“What does “unified” mean, anyway?) As the ongoing budget crises force courts to review the way in which they deliver their core services, unification (however defined) is once again being submitted as a possible solution.

HB 470 comes out of the recommendations of the state’s Commission on Judicial Operation which has said on its website that “Vermonters can no longer afford the inefficiencies of our outdated court system. ” The Commission itself was created at the request of the legislature to “reduce the judiciary’s budget and enhance the efficient and effective delivery of judicial services.”

The bill would consolidate judicial functions by eliminating the Probate, Family, and District Courts (click here for current court structure chart, courtesy of the NCSC Court Statistics Project) and “establish[ing] a unified court system under the administrative control of the Supreme Court.” This unified system would consist of the Supreme Court and Superior Court, the later to absorb the Probate, Family and District Courts. This new Superior Court would have four divisions: civil, criminal, family, and probate, which would have the same subject matter jurisdiction currently had by the current Superior, District, Family, and Probate courts. Additionally, the state’s probate and judicial districts would be redrawn with districts no longer drawn along county lines. Moreover, all judges of the new Superior Court would be required to be attorneys, a qualification currently not mandatory for Probate Court judges. Finally, the state’s “assistant judges” (non-attorneys who may serve as “side judges” on cases) would not longer be allowed  any judicial, adjudicative functions.

It remains to be seen whether this legislation will advance, and if so how far, before the legislature adjourns sometime in late April.