Fall 2009-#20. Working Group on the Restructuring of, and Access to, the Judiciary.

 
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Vermont Bar Journal

2009.

Fall 2009-#20.

Working Group on the Restructuring of, and Access to, the Judiciary

THE VERMONT BAR JOURNALVolume 35, No. 3Fall 2009 Working Group on the Restructuring of, and Access to, the JudiciaryReport to the Vermont Commission on Judicial Operation

Justice Denise Johnson, Justice Brian Burgess, Representative Donna Sweaney,

Representative Stephen Morse (Ret.), Deputy Secretary of Administration Linda McIntire (Ret.),

Judge Brian Grearson, Judge Kathleen Manley, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz

Introduction

The working group examined comparative work and staffng levels in the trial and probate courts, and considered possible consolidation or restructuring of the judiciary to achieve economies consistent with the Legislature's mandate to the Commission. According to that mandate, access to justice was to be improved or substantially maintained. The working group considered data compiled by the Court Administrator, comments and suggestions from the many focus groups assembled over the summer months and reactions from several specialized probate practitioners, as well as comments from probate judges.

Consolidating and Restructuring Trial Courts

The current structure of the trial courts, including the probate court, has advantages in terms of specialization, but the advantages are greatly outweighed by the disadvantages in infexible assignment of resources and duplication of functions. Maintenance of 63 courts in the State has meant that it is impossible to conform to resource limitations without substantial cuts in services to litigants in high priority cases, particularly criminal and family cases. The defciencies in the current structure are aggravated by the fact that the Superior Court is administered at the county level and the Probate Court is administered at both the county and state levels.

In 1974, the Vermont Constitution was amended to create a unifed judicial system under the administrative control of the Vermont Supreme Court. That unifcation was never fully implemented despite the constitutional requirement. The need for unifcation is even greater today than it was in 1974. As caseloads grow, and litigation becomes more complex, the need for fexibility in allocating trial court resources becomes ever greater. At the same time, technology creates opportunities to improve service to the public in a more effcient way as long as rigid structural lines can be crossed.

The promise of a unifed court system cannot be fulflled unless the current superior and probate courts are brought under full state control. State operation of these courts has been endorsed overwhelmingly in the focus groups. Although substituting state control and funding will increase state budget costs in the short run, the gains from restructuring will allow overall reductions in general fund support for the judiciary, gains that will increase as new technologies are implemented. The working group recommends that the Commission endorse full state control and operation of the superior court and control, and substantial restructuring of the probate court, as described below.

Once control of all the courts is achieved, we concur with the observations of the Working Group on Resources, Facilities and Personnel that the current four-courts-percounty construct of the judicial branch is duplicative, overly expensive and ineffcient. We endorse the elimination of the four separate courts, each organized according to jurisdiction (superior court-civil with vestigial criminal jurisdiction, district court-criminal with civil appellate jurisdiction for traffc violations, family and probate) and the replacement of them with a single superior court with four divisions: civil, criminal, family and probate. Generally, this trial court should be administered on a county basis with staff support directed by a single manager appointed by the Court Administrator and a presiding judge designated by the Administrative judge for Trial Courts.

We endorse the new division organization to allow specialized and responsive service to the public, while allowing court management to move resources to where the need is and organize staff and judicial offcers effciently to perform all judicial functions. There should not, however, be jurisdictional lines between divisions of the court.

The consolidated superior court will meet the constitutional and Commission's principle of establishing a unifed judiciary under the centralized administration of the Supreme Court. As detailed in the report of the Working Group on Resources, implementation of the one trial court recommendation will result in substantial staff savings, largely from reducing the number of middle managers but also from reducing duplication of functions.

Underused Courts and Staff

The trial court work of Grand Isle and in Essex Counties should be transferred to the operations of the consolidated trial courts in their neighboring Franklin and Caledonia Counties. The relatively low caseloads in Grand Isle and Essex Counties do not justify the extraordinarily high staff and cost levels in comparison to every other trial court. Access to judicial service for the residents of Grand Isle and Essex counties can be substantially met at the state courthouses at St. Albans and St. Johnsbury (and also, perhaps, at Chittenden and Newport), respectively, together with keeping one support position at each of the North Hero and Guildhall courthouses.

Based on caseload, staff and costs compared to other courts, the Grand Isle and Essex courts, on average, handle far less than half the cases with almost twice as many staff at nearly three times the cost. For example, 6.9 staff at Essex and Grand Isle courts (2.3 superior and 4.6 district/family) handled 1065 cases added (Grand Isle: 184 district + 166 family + 215 superior = 565 plus Essex: 103 district + 215 family + 182 superior = 500), averaging 154 cases per staff. The average staff cost per case between Grand Isle and Essex was $493 ($643 at Essex district/family courts plus $404 at Grand Isle district/family courts, plus $362 at Essex superior court plus $564 at Grand Isle superior court). By comparison, excluding Grand Isle and Essex, the average case:staff ratio in the other state trial courts was 378 cases per staff (370:1 district/family and 386:1 superior) at a staff cost of $161 ($160 per case in the district/family courts and $163 per case in the superior courts). We emphasize here that the Grand Isle and Essex staff are no less diligent and dedicated to their work than personnel in the other courts, but that the overstaffng and excess costs arise from the redundant middle management and split staff in the duplicate state and county court systems as outlined by the Working Group on Resources, Facilities and Personnel.

The Court Administrator reports, based on experience in other courts, that a minimum staff-to-case ratio of 400:1 is attainable.(fn1) Washington district/family court operated last year at 393:1, and Windsor district/family court at 416:1. Rutland superior court operated with a staff-to-case ratio of 476:1. Those courts are generally well-regarded, and none were the subject of signifcant service complaints.

Reducing the staff of Essex and Grand Isle from 6.9 positions to two, one position at each courthouse, would achieve an initial 500:1 case-to-staff ratio at Essex and a 565:1 ratio at Grand Isle, while reducing staff expenditures by about $300,000. Staff disparity can be alleviated, according to the Court Administrator, by transferring casework and dockets from Essex to neighboring trial courts, where case-to-staff levels are currently lower (e.g.: 295:1 at Caledonia, 314:1 at Orleans), and by reallocating comparatively underutilized positions elsewhere, and increasing effciencies, to bolster the transfer of cases from Grand Isle to the Franklin County trial court.(fn2) Staff costs at Essex and Grand Isle courts...

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