Judiciary Committee Update

A new normal is slowly taking hold in the Vermont legislature. All committees are back to meeting, albeit remotely, and are testing technology that can be used for secure remote voting. The legislature is ensuring that we can do the important work to help Vermonters impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Judiciary Committee on which I serve got back to business the first week of April. The Committee last met in mid-March, and since then the legal landscape over which it has jurisdiction has changed dramatically. Shortly after our last Committee meeting, the Vermont Supreme Court issued Administrative Order 49, a Declaration of Judicial Emergency and Changes to Court Procedures. The order suspended all non-emergency Superior Court hearings and provided a list of the emergency hearings that could still proceed, including those necessary to ensure due process rights or public safety. It suspended all hearings of the Judicial Bureau, the court that hears cases involving civil citations issued by state or local law enforcement officers. The order placed restrictions on physical access to Vermont’s courthouses while also broadening the authorization for remote telephonic or video access to permitted hearings.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee heard from witnesses who addressed how the restrictions related to coronavirus, including those in Administrative Order 49, have impacted the State’s criminal and civil justice system. Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court Paul Reiber and Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson explained that the courts are operating with substantially-reduced staff and have expanded use of remote video hearings.

A representative of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs testified that they are still available around the clock to work with law enforcement. Most of their work is being conducted remotely, with few hearings required to be in person. For new non-violent offenses, law enforcement is citing offenders and scheduling hearings six to eight weeks in the future, with the possibility of further postponement. As for offenses related to public safety, however, individuals are still being arrested and lodged pending a bail hearing.

A significant portion of the work of the State’s Attorneys as well as the Defender General’s Office is seeking to safely reduce the prison population, where inmates in close proximity are especially vulnerable to an outbreak of the coronavirus. State’s Attorneys are not requesting that defendants be held on bail where public safety is not at risk. They are also seeking dismissal of cases based on time served and early release in other situations.
A representative of the Defender General’s Office explained that their focus has shifted from handling incoming cases to looking back at past cases to see if they involved vulnerable individuals, such as those who are elderly, who are currently serving sentences. Defenders are filing petitions for extraordinary relief seeking early release of these individuals in appropriate circumstances.

The efforts of the State’s Attorneys, Defender General’s Office, and the Department of Corrections have resulted in a decrease of 208 inmates in Vermont prisons (from 1671 to 1463) over the previous three weeks.

Witnesses testified that domestic violence is a particular concern. Social distancing recommendations can put victims at risk because domestic abuse thrives in secrecy and isolation. It becomes more difficult for a victim to reach out for help when trapped in a home with the abuser. The economic downturn adds additional chellenges, increasing stress on relationships and making it more difficult for a victim to leave a domestic violence situation.

Organizations that help victims of domestic violence are still operating, and the domestic abuse hotline (800-228-7395) is still open 24 hours a day. Although shelter capacity for victims has become more limited, those who are escaping abusive situations are being housed in hotels and motels for the time being.

In the coming days, the Judiciary Committee will continue to monitor how the coronavirus response is impacting access to justice and public safety and will consider whether any emergency legislation is needed to address those impacts.