ST. ALBANS – The candidates for probate judge attended the most recent meeting of the St. Albans Town selectboard, where, in a public forum, Vaughn Comeau and Bob Farrar sparred over the issue that’s divided the two
candidates the most: Whether or not a probate judge is a part-time position.
In Vermont, a probate judge’s jurisdiction primarily involves family, guardianship and adoptions. The majority of the cases decided by the probate court related to the administration of wills and estates, though the court might also deal with adoptions, legal name changes and guardianships.
Both Comeau and Farrar cited an extensive background as lawyers involved in probate cases. The candidates both said they’ve worked on hundreds of cases involving the probate court, though Comeau emphasized that his background was far more current.
According to Comeau, Farrar had only worked on seven cases in recent years, while all of Comeau’s 260 cases occurred in the last several years.
Both candidates also emphasized their Vermont roots, with Farrar mentioning that he’s worked “hundreds of cases in Franklin County” while Comeau explained that he grew up in Swanton and worked in Colchester before work
ing overseas on environmental contracts with the World Bank.
Comeau said he returned to Franklin County “to start a family,” which led him to differentiate himself from Farrar as someone who has personal experience as a client of the probate court.
“My experience through the probate court has not only been professional, but we were lucky to adopt a little girl three years ago,” Comeau said. “I’ve been a client of the probate court also and I understand the impact probate court can have on a family and making things better for that family.”
Still, the biggest divide between the candidates was whether or not they’d serve as judges in a full-time capacity.
A centerpiece in Farrar’s campaign for probate judge was a promise that he could take on the job full-time, something that sets him apart from Comeau, who said that he’d still maintain his private law practice in Enosburgh if elected.
According to Farrar, a pledge to work full-time was consistent with previous holders of that position.
“The previous judges in the past 18 years have basically made it a full-time position: they didn’t have a private law practice,” Farrar said. “That’s what I would pledge to do: become a full-time judge and not have a private law practice.”
Comeau, meanwhile, defended his stance that the probate judge was always a part-time position, even when the judge holding that position didn’t maintain their own law firm.
“Contrary what he states, none of the previous judges have worked full time,” Comeau said. “The other judges didn’t have a private practice, but they only worked part time.”
He extended that precedent to the whole of the state, where, according to Comeau, nine of the state’s other probate judges also maintained their own private practices.
“I have a thriving practice in Enosburgh and I have five people that work for me,” Comeau said. “There’s no reason for me to abandon my commu
nity and lay off those people to do a part-time job.”
Comeau asserted that, despite maintaining his own practice, he’d prioritize his service as probate judge if elected.
“The probate court will be my first priority,” Comeau said. “I don’t know what my practice will look like and I don’t know how much time that will take to be probate judge, but that will be my priority.”
Farrar is running for probate judge as a Democrat, having defeated Comeau in the Democratic primary earlier this year. Comeau, meanwhile, won the Republican nomination as a write-in candidate and was encouraged by local attorneys to accept the nomination.
“I’ve been overwhelmingly endorsed by local attorneys, and I was actually heavily recruited to run for this office,” Comeau admitted.
One of the selectboard’s general questions for candidates that night related to partisanship and civility. While that question was more likely aimed at the legislative candidates, who were also highlighted in these forums, Farrar answered as a candidate for probate judge.
“The probate court is basically a people’s court,” Farrar said. “A lot of litigants come in without an attorney, so in terms of polarization, I think a probate judge can ease the process… and treat all the litigants with dignity and courtesy.”
He also underlined how, once seated, the probate judge’s position is mostly apolitical.
“In terms of Democratic versus Republican, once a judge is sworn in, that evaporates and you’re there to serve the people,” Farrar said.