The Vermont judiciary has extended the emergency order to suspend all jury trials for criminal and civil litigations to help courts clear the backlog of cases as the House passes a bill that cuts the state’s operational expenses.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, the Vermont Supreme Court announced the extension of its judicial emergency order to delay criminal jury trials as well as civil court trials. The new order modifies the emergency order issued in March and suspends all jury trials in criminal cases until Sept. 1, 2020. In addition, all civil cases have been suspended until Jan. 1, 2021.
Nonetheless, the wheels of justice will continue to turn, however slowly, as the Supreme Court has eased some of the restrictions that were put in place at the start of the global health crisis.
Non-emergency proceedings have resumed since June 1 but judges will hear cases remotely whenever possible. The established rules for electronic filing eCabinet or Odyssey File and Serve apply. Concerned members of the public are also advised to remotely access court records here.
Concerning the decision to maintain remote hearings, Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said that the legal system is trying to reduce the numbers of individuals who are coming to court since courts will have to face a surge of cases greater than they have seen over the last two months.
Grearson also commented on the order of hearings as stated in an 18-page document, titled “Blueprint for Expansion of Court Operations”, which outlines the order of hearings as the legal system plods forward.
Upon resumption of non-emergency hearings, priority will be given over criminal jury trials to juvenile cases and those that involve defendants who were detained pre-trial.
“There is a lot of work ahead to get these cases ready for trial and then actually conduct the trials in what is essentially a new working environment,” said Grearson.
However, on the lengthy extension of jury criminal hearings through Sept. 1, the Vermont Supreme Court wrote that date is not necessarily set in stone. The order is subject to modification following favorable developments.
The court also cautioned that the lifting of the suspension of the non-emergency hearings is not tantamount to the immediate resumption of hearings across all court dockets. Instead, courts will schedule hearings at the discretion of judges.
Judges will weigh several factors including the possibility of meeting social distancing requirements, staff availability, and the availability of the parties and their attorneys. Remote technology will be used for certain hearings. This was evident in a news release that announced that oral arguments will be live-streamed on the judiciary’s YouTube channel.
Meanwhile, Vermont lawmakers have advanced a bill for short-term state budget as they weigh how much the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the financial status of the state.
The three-month spending plan is expected to take effect in July, even as Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has proposed wide-ranged cost cuts across the state. The executive has proposed that lawmakers trim operating costs in many agencies and departments by 8% annually, starting from the first quarter of the 2021 fiscal year.
However, Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, does not agree with these cuts. Toll argues that slim-fitting the budget without an accurate revenue forecast and input from the general public would be an irresponsible move.
Nonetheless, Toll says that the committee is prepared to make tough decisions at the end of the summer when it reconvenes to conclude the state’s annual spending plan.
“This budget is intentionally far from complete, as this difficult work will happen in August when our fiscal picture is clearer and decisions can be made based on facts and fully understanding the needs of Vermonters,” said Toll during a remote meeting of the House.
The legislation seeks to allocate over $47 million of the $1.25 billion federal Coronavirus Relief Fund while level-funding most government entities. Consequently, the House would allocate $15 million apiece to the Vermont State Colleges System and the University of Vermont. $5 million is set as allocation to the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. An additional $6 million of the federal funding is set as allocation to the Secretary of State’s Office, state’s attorneys, and the legislature.
To maintain Vermont’s credit rating, the bill would also fully fund the state’s pension obligations, a move that Toll deems to be an essential and critical signal to Wall Street that the state intends to pay its debt and fulfill its obligations.
At the end of the meeting, the House decided not to cut funding. In lieu of this, it formalized a hiring freeze for all but essential positions during the three months. Furthermore, it was agreed that certain pay raises, negotiated by the Vermont State Employees’ Association before the pandemic, will be honored.
However, while Toll characterized the legislation as a simple, bare-bones budget, Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) questioned if it was prudent to pay state workers more and to avoid budget cuts when uncertainty hung over forecasts on preliminary revenue. Browning said she is concerned that the House was already spending ahead of its revenue and funding.
According to recent projections from the state’s economists, Vermont is likely to lose $378 million in the next fiscal year. This represents a 15 percent decline from previous forecasts.
Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) shared these sentiments as she reiterated that sustaining current levels of operations puts Vermonters at much higher risk for deeper cuts in the remaining three quarters of the next fiscal year.
In addition, Rep. Randall Szott (D/P-Barnard) criticized the failure of Toll’s committee to consider emergency deficit spending. According to him, those most at risk during an economic meltdown are unfavorably affected by austerity budgeting.
However, legislators voted 142 to 5 in favor of the bill and the House is expected to give final approval by the third week of June. After this, the bill will be presented to the Senate for consideration. Szott, Donahue, Browning, and two other Republican lawmakers opposed the budget.