ST. ALBANS CITY — Franklin County Superior Court has had a hard time keeping up with cases during the pandemic.
Across the country, court dates are being canceled or pushed back due to COVID-19 safety concerns. The courts have been filing a normal rate of arraignments, but they aren’t resolving cases at the rate they used to, creating a backlog in the system, according to James Hughes, Franklin County State’s Attorney.
Hughes said some cases are three years old at this point, and the state bar association was notified guidelines for resolving this issue will be coming.
“Cases aren’t settling. And things are waiting. They aren’t that bad. Luckily there aren’t many people in jail awaiting trial. I don’t know what the numbers are like, I think single digits,” said Hughes.
“Of course, there are some people with serious offenses that are being held,” Hughes said, “but there are not that many.”
Since the beginning of COVID-19 last spring, criminal courts across the country have had difficulty finding a way to have in-person sessions. This has left many courts trying to find a way to resume so the backlog doesn’t further increase.
On March 26, 2020, the Vermont Supreme Court ordered a judicial emergency, which has been amended 20 times. All trials were suspended through the end of 2020 by the judicial emergency, but the state released a statement March 15 about a plan to resume jury trials as soon as possible.
Some courts have been using video conferences, but either way, there is no way for the process to look the same as it did pre-pandemic, according to Hughes.
The issue at hand
Some of the limitations the courts are dealing with include finding a space that can accommodate their needs, said Hughes. They have looked into various options including finding a larger space, such as a theater, but the plan was too expensive.
Both Hughes and Professor Jared Carter of the Vermont Law School agreed that the damaging part of the delay is that over time witnesses move away, die or even have trouble recalling the details of the crime.
Hughes said the situation is unfair because it is hanging over people’s heads, particularly people who are innocent and want their name cleared. Hughes said he thinks the solution is to wait until COVID-19 dies out, but there is no way of telling when it will.
“The pandemic, unequivocally does not eliminate the constitutional rights of Vermonters and I can’t say that more forcefully,” said Carter, who specializes in constitutional law.
“The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, provides that all accused are entitled to a speedy trial. And that provision applies to all states, including Vermont, through the 14th amendment to the US Constitution. Not only that, but Vermont itself, under Article 10 of the Vermont Constitution has a constitutional right to a speedy and public trial,” Carter said.
The Public Defender’s office for Franklin County as well as the clerk of Franklin County Criminal Court did not respond to requests for comment.
“It becomes untenable for the state to simply say we can’t do it,” Carter said. “As we have bars and restaurants opening indoor dining, it becomes much harder for the state to argue that they simply can’t do this. I think in such an instance, the reason for the delay begins to fall on the state, which, in the end, that makes the likelihood of a violation of the regular speedy trial much greater.”
A way forward?
The Judiciary Pandemic Response and Recovery Plan was presented to the Vermont State Judiciary Committee by Patricia Gabel on April 14. The plan would use $13.6 million in federal money to address the backlog over three and a half years.
In the plan, the state is looking at various strategies to speed up the process to resume courts. They are looking into using retired judges with docket clerks to increase the pace of court proceedings, and are also considering evenings and weekends, according to Hughes. They are trying to maximize remote technology as well as improve the access to justice services.
They are also opening up an online dispute resolution as a way to resolve cases remotely.
Editor’s note: Madison Froelich is a reporter with the Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.