The Vermont Judiciary just extended and amended the 18-month-long emergency response to COVID through Nov. 1 and continues to keep courts closed to the public in Orleans County.
Patricia Gabel, state court administrator, shared details of the judiciary plan and how it impacts courts throughout the state in a press release on Friday.
“The Court’s most recent amendments, which went into effect on September 1, are based on the increasing COVID-19 infection rate and projections of public-health experts concerning the course of the pandemic,” the release noted.
Stricter mask-wearing in courts that are open are part of Gabel’s amended emergency response.
“The number of positive reported cases of COVID-19 per thousand Vermont residents has increased to over 20 from a level in June of fewer than 1.0,” she said.
The state’s Judicial Emergency Administrative Order regarding COVID protocols and restrictions was implemented in March 2020 as the prevalence of the virus was identified in Vermont. Since then, it has been extended, including since June when Gov. Phil Scott lifted the executive order that provided for COVID-related restrictions. A mask mandate has continued in the Caledonia County Courthouse due to the judiciary’s order.
The situation in Orleans County’s courts is far more restrictive as the public cannot access either courthouse due to air quality concerns. Lack of acceptable HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning) systems in the buildings bars access by the public.
Videoconferencing technology has allowed for court hearings to take place for Orleans County cases, but the closure of the courts to the public means no jury trials.
The delay in accessing the criminal courthouse prompted Defense Attorney David Sleigh to motion for dismissal of all charges against his clients in cases where the arraignments took place before COVID. He claims they’re being denied their constitutional rights to a speedy trial.
“Vermont has violated the constitutional rights of an immense number of defendants … by repeatedly denying them their right to a fair, public, and speedy jury trial,” Sleigh notes in a motion to Orleans Superior Court filed in July.
He is asking the court to dismiss 35 criminal cases ranging from Fish & Game violations to aggravated sexual assault on a child.
Judge Robert Mello conducted a hearing by videoconference on Thursday regarding Sleigh’s motion.
During the hearing, Sleigh told the court he wants to question Dr. Erin Bromage, Gabel and Judge Brian Grearson about the process of determining that such stringent restrictions on court hearings should continue.
Dr. Bromage works as a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth.
Sleigh included a footnote reference in his motion about Dr. Bromage’s “relevant expertise” in COVID-19 matters as posted at the website www.erinbromage.com.
“I am not claiming to be an expert in coronavirus, medicine, or preparedness,” reads Dr. Bromage’s blog entitled “Erin Bromage: COVID-19 Musings. “I mostly write these articles for my family, friends and students, who value my advice.”
Sleigh was given a week to file a motion justifying his desire to question the three officials about the COVID response.
“I want to ask them what is the criteria (for closure),” Sleigh said. “Is it something that Vermont is just making up on their own? What have they done to consider alternative sites?”
The state challenges Sleigh’s effort to dismiss the cases on grounds that some of the delays on case resolution can be blamed on the defendants themselves. Also, the judiciary has provided an extension of case resolution because of the unavoidable impacts of the pandemic.
Still, Sleigh said, Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett has been supportive about the need to find a solution somewhere to allow trials to occur.
Sleigh said it’s not unprecedented to locate court proceedings in non-court buildings. He recalled a time in 1985 in Orleans County when there was only one courthouse and two trials were scheduled. One of the trials was held in the basement of the Newport VFW.
“It’s not something that’s undoable,” he said.
The courthouse in Guildhall for Essex County matters also remains closed. All hearings and court appearances are happening in the Caledonia County Courthouse.