Vermont Bar Journal
Spring 2009 - #14.
The State of the Judiciary: A Report to the Vermont General Assembly
THE VERMONT BAR JOURNAL Volume 35, No. 1 SPRING 2009
The State of the Judiciary: A Report to the Vermont General Assemblyby Chief Justice Paul L. Reiber
February 19, 2009 President pro tem Shumlin, Speaker Smith, Senators, Representatives and guests. On behalf of the judges, magistrates and staff of the Vermont court system, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today. I have looked forward to this opportunity to come before you to discuss the state of our justice system and what the future holds for us.
First I must recognize my colleagues on the Supreme Court, who over the last 18 months have dedicated countless hours to our common goal of improving access to justice in these times of declining state revenues. I also want to recognize our Court Administrator's office, people who have served so well in their support roles to all of the different Courts in this state through late nights and long hours. I must also mention our rugged, independent and hard-working trial judges, court managers, clerks and staff. As we face the problem of lower funding for our branch, and fewer dollars allocated to the courts to meet caseloads, they continue to shoulder their daily work with compassion, wisdom, knowledge and skill. They have remained resilient and resourceful in the face of mounting challenges in our branch. I am deeply grateful to them for their service to all Vermonters.
As I'm sure many of you do, I tend to return to the fundamentals during trying times. I think about the core mission of the courts and about their place in our system of government. Over two hundred years ago, the Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, said this about the role of the courts: "The very essence of ... liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws." It is no exaggeration to say that democracy itself depends on the courts' ability to protect those individual rights. A robust and independent court system is vital, also, to our state's commercial livelihood. Our courts provide a stable, unbiased forum in which individual and commercial disputes are resolved. Without that forum and the predictability it provides, particularly in uncertain times like these, investors might shy away, fearing that contracts could not be enforced. If we did not have the robust court system we do, Vermonters would not be able to turn to the courts to resolve the most pressing issues in their lives, from housing and family matters to criminal prosecutions. So there are many powerful reasons for the Vermont Constitution to require that "the Courts of Justice shall be open for the trial of all causes . . . and justice shall be therein impartially administered, without corruption or unnecessary delay."
Our Constitution also says that Vermont shall have a "unified court system." A unified court system is a worthy objective because it is a system that promotes rational and uniform administration of the courts. Justice cannot be properly served if there are inconsistencies in its administration. Justice cannot be properly served when there are two different funding streams and employees working in the courts who are not subject to the same system of management and control. Justice cannot be served when a dispersed management structure stands in the way of allocating resources to priorities in times of need.
But a justice system that is both unified and flexible serves justice in good times and bad. In such a system, resources can be shifted and moved between priorities. All judges are qualified decision makers. Training is emphasized to keep up with changing statutes and emerging issues...