Vermont Judiciary extends COVID emergency through August

Published: May. 10, 2022 at 5:38 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont Judiciary has yet again extended its COVID emergency, this time through the month of August. COVID restrictions are lifted almost everywhere else, so why is this happening?

The Judiciary maintains that with fluctuating case numbers, people need to be protected when being compelled to deal with the court system. Unlike how people can choose to go to a busy restaurant, people have to go to court, which is why they have stricter regulations at times than even the health department.

However, with this extension of the judicial emergency, the rules included have been significantly pared back.

Attorneys say things are progressing as courthouses are increasingly getting closer to business as usual.

“I just think they’re being cautious but I feel pretty good about how they are moving in the right direction in my view,” Grand Isle County State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito said.

DiSabito has not tried a case in the Grand Isle County Courthouse since before the start of the pandemic. HVAC issues at the North Hero courthouse and the judicial emergency meant no hearings until just last week.

“I think they are doing as much as they can do to reopen the courts fully. Last Thursday, I was in person for the first time in the courthouse in over two years,” DiSabito said.

He says the Judiciary recently signed off on allowing the court to begin jury trials this June with open windows in the courtroom, an important step to making sure justice is served.

The new extension of the COVID judicial emergency, he says, has amended many of the previous strict policies. Now, they are on more of a case-by-case basis and the rules allow more flexibility.

Grand Isle County along with Essex County courthouses have been closed to in-person trials since the beginning of the pandemic.

DiSabito says with a new court administration in the Vermont Judiciary he’s seen progress.

“We are not a large corporation, we are state government. We work for the people and so open government, open communication. And so with the new administration, it’s been very very positive,” DiSabito said.

However, with an ongoing emergency and backlogs piling up, is justice really being served?

Jessica Brown says no. She is an assistant professor at Vermont Law School and a former public defender. She says the long delay is bad for defendants who have a charge hanging over their heads and it’s prolonging pain for victims. She’s concerned the delay could keep victims in the shadows. “Is this resulting in fewer people reporting fewer crimes to the police? If people’s experience is that, ‘If I report this harm that I’ve experienced and literally nothing is going to happen for two years, what is the point of reporting this harm?’”

Brown says she hopes courts are doing everything in their power to send people to restorative justice programs and that prosecutors are giving the best possible deals to defendants to help clear the backlog.

Another important step is coming up in the Appropriations Bill in state government, which could funnel millions to courthouses to make needed structural upgrades so they can do their jobs.

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