By Helen Toor, Vermont Superior Court Judge
Q: Are the Vermont state courts open?
A: Yes. The business of the courts has continued throughout the pandemic. However, with some exceptions for emergency hearings, state courthouses were closed to the public for some time. When COVID-19 hit, we started testing out video (“remote”) hearings. Our IT folks quickly managed to get us set up with the necessary software—something similar to Zoom, called WebEx—so that hearings could continue. When someone needed to pick up a form or drop one off, there was limited access to the building for those purposes. When there was an in-person hearing, the parties, lawyers, witnesses and the media were allowed in. When the hearings were by video, the media or members of the public could request the link if they wished to observe.
Jury trials stopped until recently because we could not have so many people together in one room, and evictions and foreclosures stopped because of state and federal legislation that put such cases on hold. Recently, we have started scheduling such cases again and opening up courthouses for more in-person hearings.
Q: Will remote hearings continue?
A: Yes, to some extent. One of the things we have learned from this experience is that remote hearings work very well for some kinds of hearings. Although many people think of jury trials when they think of courts, jury trials are actually only one aspect of our work. Many cases get decided by judges in “court trials,” also called “bench trials,” where there is no jury. Those can be days or weeks long, but many of them last only an hour or two. In addition, there are many briefer hearings, such as “status conferences,” which are check-ins with the parties and their lawyers to discuss scheduling and other minor issues as the case is proceeding. These can be as short as 10 minutes. In the past, we often allowed participation in such brief hearings by phone, so video is actually an improvement. Since litigants and lawyers often do not live in the same town as the courthouse, we can save everyone the driving time that could easily exceed the time spent in the hearing. Lawyers who have cases in many different courthouses can now attend multiple hearings in a day without driving many miles to get from one court to another.
In addition, remote hearings can make the courts more accessible for many people. For example, anyone who lacks transportation, needs to be home with young children, or cannot afford to take a whole day off from work can benefit by being able to participate remotely rather than coming to the courthouse. Parties with physical or emotional disabilities can often participate more easily by logging in from home or work rather than having to drive or get a ride to the courthouse.
Even trials can be done remotely, as documents can be shared on the screen and even marked up remotely with arrows, notations and underlining. Some states have been doing remote jury trials for months now, and the Vermont Supreme Court recently approved such a procedure for our courts if the parties agree to it. See vermontjudiciary.org/about-vermont-judiciary/remote-jury-trials for more information on that process.
Q: So, will my hearing now be in person or remote?
A: That depends. The evidence is clear that COVID is spread through aerosols in the air; thus the air handling system in each courthouse needed to be evaluated. There are courthouses in each of the 14 counties in Vermont, and in some counties there are two courthouses (one for civil court, one for criminal and family court). While some of the buildings are relatively new, some are very old. The old buildings may have lovely architectural details, such as clock towers and carved wooden benches, but they were built at a time when things like air conditioning were not on the menu. Thus, some buildings needed upgrades to create adequate air flow, and some have still not been upgraded. As a result, a case that might be heard in person in one county may still be done remotely in another county that is not yet deemed safe for in-person hearings.
Here are a list of courthouses that are still closed to the public except for emergency hearings.
Q: What else is being done to assure the safety of those entering the courthouses?
A: Quite a few things. In addition to better air-handling systems, some smaller rooms have free-standing HEPA filters to account for the lack of air flow. In addition, many courtrooms now have CO2 monitors to alert us if the air is getting stale and we need to take a break. We are also limiting the number of people in a courtroom to maintain social distancing, as well as requiring masks for everyone in the public areas of the buildings, whether vaccinated or not. This includes court staff and judges. Judges have the discretion to allow someone who documents their vaccination to remove their mask in the courtroom, such as a witness while she testifies.
One of the reasons we are being so careful is that coming to court is not like going shopping, or to a restaurant. Most people are not in court by choice. Many are there because they were sued by someone else, or had to file a lawsuit, or are getting divorced or fighting over custody, or were charged with a crime. Others are there because they are witnesses called to testify, or victims of a crime. Some are lawyers, police officers or child protection workers, whose jobs require them to be in court. Some are there because they were called for jury duty. Any of these people may be highly vulnerable to COVID-19 for reasons such as medical conditions, or they may have children at home who cannot yet be vaccinated. As a result, the Vermont Supreme Court has determined that we should do all we can to protect the health of those who enter our buildings.
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.