As lawmakers struggle to craft a balanced budget, some are looking at ways to make the state's judicial system less costly. Residents in Grand Isle and Essex Counties are furious about one proposal — to close their courthouses.
Drenched in sunlight on a cold winter day, the white wooden Essex County Courthouse, with its tall bell tower, is the architectural gem of tiny Guildhall. It's also a place where people have been coming since 1851, sometimes on icy or muddy roads, to get disputes settled and crimes judged. Allan Hodgdon, assistant judge and the town's unofficial historian, says that tradition must continue.
"I think to go ahead and deprive them of the one thing that puts them on equal status with other counties, meaning the county courthouse, would be a big mistake," he says, showing off antique chairs, desks and portraits. He's fought to save this courthouse in past belt-tightening years.
"And I think to deprive little Essex County of its primary institution, where the residents of the county have been going for justice for 223 years, would be a travesty," Hodgdon says.
Similar outrage is echoing on the other side of Vermont, in Grand Isle County, which could also see its nineteenth-century landmark closed due to budget cuts. North Hero Selectman Ben Johnson says that could force people to travel 40 miles, either to St. Albans or Burlington, to get their day in court. If smaller courthouses are more expensive to run per case than urban ones, so be it, Johnson says, "…because we live out in the country. It's like police services are more expensive on a case by case basis. A battered woman in Grand Isle should be able to go into the Grand Isle courthouse and seek relief."
Vermont's State Court Administrator, Patricia Gabel, says courthouse closures are not high on the judiciary's own list of cost-cutting measures. Counties maintain the buildings, so the only state expenses are security and staffing. And overall, Gabel says, personnel costs are fixed because of health care benefits and union wages. But closing courts without transferring staff, Gabel says, would only worsen a case backlog.
"We have no plans to close any courthouses and if we are funded properly there will be a court in every county, and if we are not funded properly, then everything's on the table," she warns.
But whatever happens to the two small courthouses, Gabel says there is more than one way to access justice, using technology, for example. Vermont’s judiciary is still run largely on paper.
"The people who use the court system are very accustomed to interacting online with their bank, with their insurance company, with each other, yet they are unable to interact with the court system in the same way," Gabel notes.
An earlier attempt to create a $5 million electronic records system failed. Gabel still wants the state to invest in modern technology, while keeping all the county courthouses open only for face-to-face hearings, as necessary. But whether lawmakers will approve more spending, rather than less, remains to be seen.