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Vermont Courts Prepare To Ramp Up As COVID-19 Restrictions Relax

Steps leading up to a courthouse.
Emily Corwin
/
VPR File
On June 1, the Vermont Judiciary is expanding court operations after nearly two and half months of restrictions due to the pandemic.

Courts in Vermont, like pretty much all sectors of society, have been forced to rethink their operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. State courts have been in a judicial emergency since mid-March. Most hearings have been postponed, and public access has been severely limited.

But as the coronavirus infections in the state have declined, the Vermont Judiciary is preparing to ramp up activity.

I recently visited the criminal division in Chittenden County to see how courts have been operating and what it might look like going forward.

The courthouse is a couple of blocks away from Church Street in Burlington and usually, snagging a parking spot in front of the building is impossible. But on a recent visit, I had my pick.

There’s a red rope across the front entrance and a security guard in a mask who sits at a small desk in the entryway.

He pulls out a clip board and starts reading me a list of questions: Was I experiencing any respiratory symptoms, like a cough or shortness of breath, any fever or fatigue? Had I been in contact with someone who had the coronavirus? Had I been to another country or a hospital recently?

After answering a quick “no” to each question, the guard unhooks the rope blocking the door and waves me in, where I send my backpack through the scanner and walk through the metal detector — that’s the one part of the screening that has always been there.

"I would like to note for the record that it's very poor reception." — Remote court proceedings

Usually, there’s a steady stream of people coming in and out of the building, but not today. The place seems deserted. None of the buzz of attorneys in the halls or people milling around before their hearing.

While the courts have been open during the pandemic, their operations have been limited to emergency hearings, things like bail review for people in jail, domestic assault arraignments and changes of pleas.

I stand outside the locked courtroom, waiting to get in. A little after 2 p.m. the lock clicks and the door opens.

“Media?” the court officer asks. “Come in and get set up right here.”

A door with warnings about food and drink and then about COVID-19
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
/
VPR
Chittenden County's courtroom doors have the usual reminders, and then some new ones for COVID-19.

I’m ushered in one of the smaller court rooms where a large TV on one wall shows the face of the defendant: A man with short brown hair and a goatee.

He was at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, where he’s been since he was arrested in early May. In today’s proceedings, he’ll plead guilty to a misdemeanor resisting arrest charge.

Besides the judge and two court staffers, I’m the only person in the room. The lawyers, like the defendants, are miles away.

“Do I gather we have counsel on the phone?” Judge Thomas Carlson asks.

The phones crackle as the prosecutor and defense signal they’re present, though the public defender, Margaret Jansch, is having trouble with the phone connection.

“I would like to note for the record that it’s very poor reception,” she says.

A court officer springs up and offers to merge Jansch onto the same phone line as the prosecutor. Carlson, wearing a mask, perks up and endorses the plan: “Let’s do that!”

"We expect a flood of new cases coming in." — Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson

These sorts of stops and starts could be more common as the courts expand operations on June 1 and rely more on remote hearings, with attorneys on the phone, and depending on the case, defendants at the courthouse or appearing from jails via video.

The judiciary is advising courts to adjust their schedules, stagger cases and find other ways to reduce the amount of people in the building to comply with social distancing and public health guidelines. Jury trials are on hold until September in criminal cases and until January 2021 in civil court.

The judicial system also faces another looming challenge: A backlog of cases that have built up during the last two and half months.

“We expect a flood of new cases coming in,” Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson told the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.

Grearson said that the courts would prioritize cases involving children and incarcerated people. Retired judges will be brought in and other judges would be re-assigned.

A judge and court reporter in face masks with a defendant on a television screen.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
/
VPR
Vermont courts expect to continue on with remote hearings even as they open up more after June 1.

“Meaning judges that are sometimes doing civil matters will end up assisting in the backlog in those dockets,” Grearson said.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial and there’s concern that even if the courts add resources, there won’t be enough attorneys to handle the caseload.

John Campbell, the executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said they’re down six deputies across the state and they might use contract attorneys to help fill the gaps.

“The number of cases that we’re going to see, it’s going to be extremely taxing,” he said. “And frankly, unless we are able to get additional help in these offices, I don’t see how we can do it.”

That may lead to changes in what prosecutors are willing to charge.

"We need to be really diligent about making sure that the cases we're focusing on are the most serious cases that we have." — Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George has told her staff to review their cases for ones that could be dismissed or diverted to other avenues, like a restorative justice program.

“We need to be really diligent about making sure that the cases we’re focusing on are the most serious cases that we have,” she said.

It’s hard to know how busy courts will be. Police have been arresting a lot fewer people in recent months, and prisons have reduced their population by nearly 17%.

But public defenders are also short-staffed, according to Defender General Matt Valerio. He said he’ll have to assess which counties need the most help.

An empty hallway leading to a window.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
/
VPR
It's hard to know how busy courts will be after June 1. While arrests and prison populations are down, so are the number of available public defenders.

And he said that the large caseloads shouldn’t be an excuse to move through cases quickly.

“These are people’s lives, and to them, this is the most important thing that they have going,” he said. “We gotta make sure that we do a good job, we can’t just say, 'Oh, you’re in the door, and now everybody pleads guilty, and everybody's out the door' — there are people who have legitimate beefs with whatever law enforcement did or the charging of the prosecutor.”

Back in the Chittenden County courtroom, with the phones working, the hearing goes smoothly. The defendant pleads guilty to resisting arrest and is sentenced to 18 to 20 days. It all takes about 20 minutes.

With the hearing over, everyone departs. The video screen blinks off, there’s a small beep as the attorneys hang up their phones and Judge Carlson murmurs a quiet "take care" as he walks out of the courtroom.

The court officer looks over, shrugs and tells me: “There is no more.”

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