From the bench

“How did you become a judge?” “What’s the difference between state and federal court?” “How often can I be called for jury duty?” When people learn that I’m a judge, they always have questions about the court system. This column is my attempt to answer some of those questions for the rest of you. If you have other court-related questions that you’d like me to address in future columns, please feel free to send them in. Today’s topic: What the different courts in Vermont do.

What are the different courts in Vermont?
There are a number of different courts in Vermont. First, there are the federal courts. Those are the United States District Courts (one in Burlington, one in Rutland) and the Bankruptcy Court. Every state has such courts. In states with larger populations, there will be more districts within the state and thus more courts.

The judges of the United States District Courts are appointed by the president, and their appointments are for life. Appeals from those courts go to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which is located in New York City and takes appeals from New York, Connecticut and Vermont. There is currently one Vermonter, Peter Hall, on the 2nd Circuit Court (also a presidential appointment). The bankruptcy judge is appointed by the judges on the 2nd Circuit Court and has a 14-year term.

There is also one federal magistrate judge in Vermont. Magistrates are appointed for eight-year terms by the judges on the District Court. The role of federal magistrates can vary from state to state because they handle cases referred to them by the district judges. They often handle the initial appearances in new criminal cases, including deciding whether someone will be released on bail.

The federal judges in Vermont are:
2nd Circuit: Peter Hall
District judges: William Sessions III, Christina Reiss and Geoffrey Crawford.
Bankruptcy judge: Colleen Brown
Magistrate judge: John Conroy

The state courts in Vermont include the Vermont Supreme Court (the highest court in Vermont), composed of five justices who sit in Montpelier, and the Vermont Superior Court, which has courts in all 14 counties. Each county’s Superior Court has four divisions: civil, criminal, family and probate. The judges are called Superior Court judges (in the Family Division, there are also magistrates, who primarily handle child support issues). There is also an Environmental Division, with two judges who cover the whole state. There are a lot of state court judges, so I won’t list them all here!

The courts that many of you are more likely to end up in are the Judicial Bureau, which is what we call traffic court in Vermont, and Small Claims Court. The Judicial Bureau also handles tickets issued for things like hunting violations or minors drinking alcohol or using marijuana. Small Claims Court handles disputes involving $5,000 or less and is designed to be faster and simpler than regular civil court.

Usually the Superior Court is what we call a “trial court,” meaning cases start there and get decided by the judge or by a jury. However, it is also sometimes an appeals court. Appeals from the Judicial Bureau, Small Claims Court and Probate Court all go to the Superior Court. In addition, appeals can go to Superior Court from decisions of state agencies or even municipalities (examples of this are appeals from the Labor Department’s decisions about workers compensation awards or appeals from town property tax valuations). Appeals from Superior Court go to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Superior Court judges and Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor (I thank you, Howard Dean!) and then reviewed by the Legislature every six years to determine whether they will be renewed for another six-year term. Probate judges are elected. Judicial Bureau cases are heard by a hearing officer, who is appointed for a four-year term, or sometimes by assistant judges (we’ll talk about their role another time). Small claims cases are usually heard by lawyers who are appointed on a temporary basis to hear cases just for a day.

Why would a case be in federal court instead of state court?
Most cases in the country are filed in state courts. However, certain cases can be brought only in federal court or can be brought in either state or federal court. First, let’s talk about criminal cases.

Criminal cases in which someone is charged with violating a federal criminal law—one written by the United States Congress—are brought in federal court. Criminal cases in which someone is charged with violating a state criminal law—one written by the Vermont Legislature—are brought in state court. Criminal cases are filed by prosecutors. The head federal prosecutor is called the United States attorney, and the head state prosecutors (there is one in each county) are called state’s attorneys. (In many other states these are called district attorneys.) The other lawyers who work for the United States attorney are called assistant United States attorneys (abbreviated to AUSAs), and the ones who work for the state’s attorneys are called deputy state’s attorneys.

Sometimes there can be cases in which both a state and a federal crime could be involved, and the case could be brought in either court (or both). Sometimes a case that would usually be brought in state court ends up in federal court because the defendant crossed state lines while committing the crime. Another example: A robbery case is usually a state crime, but robbing a federally insured bank will land you in federal court.

State criminal cases can also be brought (in state court) by the Attorney General’s Office. That office has the ability to bring criminal cases all over the state. For example, that office might be asked by a state’s attorney to take over a large, complicated case that would be challenging for the smaller office to handle. It might also get involved if the local prosecutor felt he or she had a conflict of interest (for example, if the defendant was the state’s attorney’s friend or former colleague).

Now let’s discuss civil cases. Most civil cases are filed in state court, but they can be brought in federal court in certain circumstances. First, any time a federal agency is suing or being sued, a federal court generally has jurisdiction (for example, if you sued a Veterans Administration hospital claiming medical malpractice or the IRS sued you for not paying your taxes).

Second, if someone who is a resident of some other state is suing a Vermont resident, she has the choice of suing in federal court if her claim is for $75,000 or more, even though the issue is based on state law. This is called “diversity jurisdiction,” meaning that the parties are from diverse states.

A third common basis for being in federal court is what is called “federal question” jurisdiction. That basically means that the issue involved in the case is based on a federal law or the federal constitution.

Finally, bankruptcy cases are all heard in federal court. There are other special situations that lead a case to federal court, but these are the most common types of federal cases.

I will try to clarify the difference between civil and criminal cases and the roles of the different Superior Court divisions another time. If you are interested in looking for more information about the Vermont state courts on your own, check out the judiciary’s web page.

Helen has been a Vermont Superior Court Judge for almost 20 years. Prior to that she was Chief of the Civil Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Burlington. She started her legal career at a large New York City law firm and then worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. She has a degree in Environmental Studies from UVM and a law degree from the University of Chicago.