BRATTLEBORO—Though three new judges have been tapped to fill Vermont Superior Court vacancies, Windham County’s courts still are doing more with less.
It’s a situation not unique to this county, as Vermont Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson has had his hands full crafting a patchwork system of judicial assignments to address a growing caseload in criminal, civil, and family courts around the state.
Grearson notes that help is on the way.
The state’s three newest judges soon will assume their posts, and Gov. Peter Shumlin last week asked the state’s Judicial Nominating Board to begin soliciting applications for an additional four judicial slots: three vacancies and an additional judgeship to help cover northern Vermont.
In the meantime, though, Grearson is asking judges and court staff to do what they can to keep the courts running.
In Windham County, where a civil-court judicial vacancy will remain for at least a few months, that means pulling in a judge from Windsor County and asking a retiring judge to stay on the bench in a backup role.
“It’s not the best, but it’s what we can do until we get the next round of appointments,” Grearson said.
Two longtime judges retire
This year has brought the retirements of two prominent Windham County jurists — Judge David Suntag and Presiding Judge John Wesley — who together had nearly 50 years of experience.
Those departures combined with others to create an unprecedented six Superior Court vacancies as of Sept. 1, when Wesley’s retirement was scheduled to take effect.
“To have [even] three openings at any one time happens once in a great while,” Grearson said.
Assignments for those incoming judges have not yet been made public.
“They’re just starting their orientation period now, so it will be at least another month before the new appointments start sitting on their own,” Grearson said.
What is clear, though, is that none of those judges is coming to Windham County.
Grearson said the slot that he needs to fill — a civil-court judge who sits in both Windham and Bennington counties — was not a good fit for a newly appointed judge.
Plus, he points out that Valente, a Rutland attorney, is the closest geographically of the three new judges. And that’s not close enough, in Grearson’s view.
“The problem down in Brattleboro is, that seat — the civil seat — is shared,” he said. “It was always a judge who lived either in [Windham County] or Bennington [County].”
So for now, Judge Theresa DiMauro of Windsor County will be serving as the primary civil judge for Windham and Bennington.
And Wesley, “though he has retired, has agreed to continue to sit in civil court to some extent to help out,” Grearson said.
Also, Judge Thomas Durkin — normally assigned to Environmental Court — will continue to help out in Windham. And Windham County has a new presiding judge: Karen Carroll, who most recently had been Windsor County’s presiding jurist.
Carroll has roots in Windham County, having served as a deputy state’s attorney here from 1988 to 1994, according to her official state biography. Carroll also worked for the Vermont Attorney General as a prosecutor for the Southern Vermont Drug Task Force and prosecuted drug cases in U.S. District Court before she was appointed to the bench in December 2000 by then-Gov. Howard Dean.
“Judge Carroll certainly has a lot of experience,” Grearson said. “Most recently, she completed her rotation in White River Junction in the criminal division.”
In White River, Carroll presided over a special DUI court and “did a great job,” Grearson said.
Suntag started that grant-funded court, also known as IDVD, last year in Windham County. In what has become a recurring theme in the Vermont judiciary, Suntag agreed to stay on beyond his March retirement to continue running IDVD part-time.
As Suntag’s role comes to an end this month, “Judge Carroll will be taking over that court, within a modified structure,” Grearson said.
If those arrangements sound complicated, that’s because they are. To fill gaps all over the state, environmental judges have been hearing criminal, civil, and mental-health cases; Vermont Supreme Court justices have taken on Superior Court work; and Grearson himself has been traveling to hear cases.
“We’ve done really everything we can to fill in,” he said.
In another administrative move meant to stabilize the situation, most of the Superior Court’s “shared resources” arrangements — special supplemental coverages that take a judge into other jurisdictions for designated periods of time — have been suspended.
“Because of the shortage, I had to cancel those county-to-county swaps because I couldn’t justify taking judges from one court and sending them to another court,” Grearson said.
‘The filings don’t stop’
The three incoming judges will ease the situation somewhat. Filling the remaining Superior Court vacancies will take time, as the Judicial Nominating Board must seek and review candidates before making recommendations to Shumlin, who has the final say.
On Sept. 16, a letter released by Shumlin’s office showed that the governor is getting that process started. He asked for the “prompt attention” of the nominating board, which is chaired by state Sen. Peg Flory, a Pittsford Republican.
“I write to formally advise you of four superior judge vacancies,” Shumlin’s letter says. “Three of these vacancies are the result of the retirements of Judge Amy Davenport, Judge John Wesley, and Judge Michael Kupersmith, and the fourth appointment will span the northern portion of the state. Please convene the Judicial Nominating Board for the purpose of soliciting and reviewing applications to fill these vacancies.”
Grearson is hoping new judges will emerge from that process sometime after the New Year. So, while he’s optimistic that things will improve relatively soon, Grearson still was dealing with six vacancies when he spoke to VTDigger and The Commons last week.
“Obviously, the filings don’t stop,” he said. “The issues that are driving those filings don’t stop.”
Grearson was referring to Vermont’s much-publicized issues with opiate abuse. He said he’s seeing effects not only in the criminal caseload but also in Family Court when families are thrown into upheaval by drug issues.
“They’re all being hit by this opiate addiction,” Grearson said. “It’s impacting all of our dockets in different ways.”
Those dockets are, for the most part, continuing to grow. The Vermont Judiciary’s most recent report, for fiscal year 2014, included these highlights of increased caseloads:
• Though statewide criminal felony filings dipped a bit from fiscal 2013 to 2014, they were nonetheless 4 percent higher than in 2010.
“The major increases in felony filings over the past five years are in domestic violence felonies, which are up 30 percent, and felony drug filings, which are up 25 percent,” the report says.
• In Family Court, the number of CHINS (child in need of care or supervision) petitions jumped by 62 percent since 2010. “This represents the largest case filing increase in the Superior Court,” the judicial report says. “For the first time in a decade or more, CHINS filings now outnumber delinquency petitions.”
• Also in Family Court, termination of parental rights cases increased by 21 percent over five years.
• And in the mental-health docket, involuntary medication applications doubled from fiscal 2013 to 2014.
The fiscal 2014 report for Windham Superior Court Criminal Division showed 302 felony cases added, up a bit from the previous year. There were 167 felony cases pending at year’s end, the most pending cases since 2010.
And on the misdemeanor front, Windham County saw more than 1,000 new cases each year from 2010 to 2014, though the high-water mark came in 2010.
While termination of parental rights cases were down in fiscal 2014, Windham County saw a 39 percent hike in CHINS cases filed, the report showed.
Grearson had praise for Vermont’s judges and judiciary staffers, who have been bearing the brunt of those increases while often working short-handed.
“I can’t say enough about their willingness to do what’s been asked of them,” he said.