Week Five – An Update on Judiciary Committee Matters

The past week in the legislature has been a full one on many different fronts. I worked on issues that came before the House Judiciary Committee, tracked the action on education funding reform, introduced my own bill related to collective bargaining between school boards and teachers associations, continued to follow potential legislation addressing the cleanup of Lake Champlain and climate change, and tried to continue to be aware in a general sense of the many other issues that are coming before the legislature.

Over the past two weeks, the House Judiciary Committee has heard testimony on and delved into issues related to juvenile justice. It considered H.62, which would prohibit sentences of life without parole for a person who committed his or her offense as a minor. Currently no inmates are serving such a sentence in Vermont. Nevertheless, enactment of the bill would recognize that, because their brains are not fully developed, juvenile offenders are less culpable and have the unique ability to be rehabilitated. Eliminating this harsh sentence would not excuse a juvenile’s behavior, but would provide the opportunity for such an offender to demonstrate rehabilitation to a parole board.

House Judiciary also considered H.95, which relates to jurisdiction over delinquency proceedings by the Family Division of the Superior Court. The objective of the bill is to channel more cases involving juveniles into the Family Division of state court, where certain confidentiality and other procedural protections are in place, rather than adult criminal court, which lacks such protections. The Committee received mixed testimony, the primary concern being whether the Family Division would have the resources to hear these additional cases. Currently, the judicial branch, and in particular the Family Division of state court, lack sufficient resources to keep up with caseloads that have been increasing due to the fallout from the opiate addiction problem in Vermont. Accordingly, we are paying close attention to this resource crunch when considering bills that would expand the number of cases that come before the state courts, particularly the Family Division.

During the course of hearing testimony on these bills, the Committee received interesting and enlightening testimony related to brain development. Current science on this topic supports our efforts to ensure that Vermont’s criminal justice system is appropriately handling juvenile offenders.

The Committee also considered H.105, which would amend the State’s laws related to voyeurism to impose criminal sanctions on individuals who disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals online without their consent, even if the photograph or video itself was taken with consent – so-called revenge porn. Websites created specifically for this type of pornography sometimes include a victim’s name, address, and links to social media profiles with the images, and some websites charge a fee to have the materials removed. H.105 is different than laws adopted in most other states in that it also imposes sanctions on dissemination of digitally-altered sexually explicit images of another person without their knowledge and consent. The Committee will hear additional testimony in the coming week, including testimony addressing concerns related to First Amendment protections, particularly with respect to digitally-altered images.

House Judiciary also voted H.86 out of committee. H.86 will amend the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”), originally enacted in Vermont in 1996. The Act sets forth jurisdictional rules and determines which state’s law applies when more than one state is involved in establishing, enforcing or modifying a child support or spousal order, or is establishing a child’s parentage. UIFSA requires that every state defer to child support orders entered by courts of the child’s home state. Modifications to a support order may occur only in the home state unless the child and parents no longer live there. Custodial parents may request either directly or through the state agency responsible for child support that another state enforce the support order. I will take on the responsibility of reporting out this bill to the full House this coming week. That involves explaining the bill on the floor of the House and responding to any questions.

In addition to my work on the Judiciary Committee, this past Thursday I introduced H.102, “an act relating to labor relations for teachers and administrators,” which is a bill that I have worked on since early December. In an article that will be published this Thursday in The Other Paper, I describe my work on that bill. I’ll post the article next week.

On a lighter note, this past week I discovered that the Statehouse Cafeteria serves up excellent homemade chocolate chip cookies. I already knew that their chef makes the best cake doughnuts in Vermont, if not in all of New England. I, however, am trying to behave and keep my consumption of these delights to a minimum or else I will put on an extra ten pounds by the end of the session.