FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (14 Feb. 2010)
CONTACT: William Boardman (802) 457-1782
[May be used as Op Ed or Letter to the Editor]
COURT PROPOSALS RUSHED AND WRONG SAYS PROBATE JUDGE
By William Boardman, Assistant Judge
WOODSTOCK - When an organization has 26 staff people doing the work usually assigned to 29 people, what would you expect that organization to do?
The answer, in the case of the Vermont Supreme Court, is to reduce the size of the staff to 21 without changing the total workload.
This is one of the many anomalies addressed by Probate Judge Ernest Tobias Balivet of Caledonia County, in the winter issue of the Vermont Bar Journal in a detailed analysis of the Supreme Court's proposals for re-shaping the Vermont court system.
Judge Balivet spoke out strongly last fall before the judicial commission when it was considering radical change for the state's probate's courts. Although he testified twice, the commission neither responded to his critique nor made any changes in what he described as their rushed and selective analysis. The Supreme Court adopted the commission report without further revision and forwarded it to the legislature, together with proposed legislation for implementing its controversial recommendations.
In his discussion of probate court personnel statewide, Judge Balivet notes that the probate staff in Caledonia has remained at two people for the past 30 years, whereas trial court positions have almost tripled, from four to eleven. He cites almost identical statistics for Franklin County.
For Vermont as a whole, Judge Balivet writes, 'probate staffing has remained largely stable, and trial court staffing has seen significant growth.'
According to the Supreme Court's workload study in May 2009, probate court staff also work more hours than trial court staff. As Judge Balivet notes, the 'study indicates that probate staff statewide are handling 1,497 hours annually of case-related workload staff person.'
The same study found that probate staff work about 7 per cent more hours per year that trial court personnel, who work about 1,400 hours per person annually.
Judge Balivet notes that the Supreme Court failed to apply the same analysis to the trial courts that it applied to probate court. Had the Supreme Court made a comprehensive assessment of the judicial system, he argues, they would have found far greater and more credible savings in restructuring the trial courts.
For example, Judge Balivet points out that, if trial court personnel were expected to work 1,500 hours per year, as probate personnel already do, then the trial courts could function with significantly fewer personnel. In fact, he concludes, trial court personnel could be reduced from 171 employees to 159, producing a savings to the judiciary budget of $486,396.
This approach was formally not considered by the commission or the Supreme Court, and has not been proposed to the legislature.
What the court has proposed is to regionalize and consolidate Vermont's 14 probate courts under five probate judges statewide, even though their own workload study found that the workload demands at least six and a fraction judges. As a result of this anomaly, Judge Balivet argues, the Supreme Court's projected savings are highly inflated and speculative.
The judge goes on to point out that a similar analysis of the trial courts would produce projected savings in excess of $6 million. This analysis was not done by the commission and has not been done by the Supreme Court.
'The Commission engaged in the compound error of not attempting this analysis in the trial courts, and of applying it without understanding it methodologically to the probate courts,' Judge Balivet stated.
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