Vermont supreme court hears case on campus

By SOPHIA MCDERMOTT-HUGHES

MAX PADILLA
Students filled Wilson Hall January 15 to watch the Vermont Supreme Court hear oral arguments for multiple cases as part of their ‘On the Road Series.’

Middlebury became the first college visited by the Vermont Supreme Court as part of its “On the Road Series” when it held hearings for four cases in a packed Wilson Hall on Jan. 15.

“We are very fortunate to have a state supreme court that is so willing and open to bring the court to the community,” said Susan Ritter, special assistant to the president and director of community relations, at the start of the hearings. “As President Patton has noted, this offers a rare opportunity for our students and community members to learn more about the Vermont’s judicial system.”

The court heard a broad array of cases: TC v. LD, a civil case; Progressive Northern Insurance Company v. Muller, an insurance case; State of Vermont v. Darryl M Galloway, a criminal case; and Athens School District et al. v. State Board of Education et. al, a constitutional case which reviewed the validity of the board forcefully merging school districts.

The court releases the decisions for most cases one to six months after hearing the oral arguments, according to Justice Beth Robinson.

The hearings were open to the public, and groups of students from Middlebury Union High School and Mount Abraham High School attended throughout the day.  

“I really value the opportunity to include people and help people understand [the Vermont Supreme Court,]” said Robinson in an interview with The Campus. “We get our accountability through transparency.”

Retired Vermont Supreme Court Justices John Dooley and Marilyn Skoglund coordinated the hearings held at Middlebury.  The two retired justices are also teaching a winter term course this January entitled “State Supreme Courts: How They Work and When They Don’t.”

Dooley was motivated to teach a winter term class and bring the Supreme Court to Middlebury when he heard President Laurie Patton speak about her wish to make the college a school “of Vermont” rather than simply a school “in Vermont.”

The “On the Road Series,” which was born through the wish “to help teach civics through [witnessing] an actual court argument and seeing the process,’’ according to Skoglund, seemed to be the perfect vehicle to facilitate a deepening relationship between Vermont state government and the college and impress upon students the importance of the state courts.

While many people follow the national Supreme Court when it comes to issues such as abortion, “day in and day out, 100s of those similar cases are being decided by state supreme courts,” Dooley said. Vermont has no intermediate appellate courts, so all appeals go to the State Supreme Court, which hears about 400 cases per year.

 Nationwide, 95% of cases are tried in state courts, according to data collected by U.S. Court of Appeal Judge Jeffery S. Sutton in his book “51 Imperfect Solutions.” These cases, especially in the state supreme courts, weigh heavily on the lives of the state’s citizens, according to Dooley.

 “We live in a world where the state has a constitution, the federal government has a constitution and you are doubly protected by both of them,” said Dooley. “A decision of the state supreme court on a state constitution could be more important to you than what happens in Washington.”

 In the 2018 fiscal year, the Vermont state courts heard 51,000 cases, not including 93,000 traffic cases, according to the Vermont Judiciary Annual Statistical Report published in fall 2018. The number of cases has steadily increased over the years, according to Dooley. He estimates that the courts heard 55,0000 cases in the 2019 fiscal year. 

 With a population of roughly 624,000, according to the US Census, Vermont’s ratio of cases to people is nearly one to 11. When including traffic cases, that ratio jumps to almost one in four.

 “Usually, cases have at least two people, sometimes more, so you can see how much the state courts affect people,” said Dooley. 

 While the hearings and winter term class aimed to educate students and community members on civics, Middlebury College and its community were not the only beneficiaries.

“[Interacting with students] is very invigorating for us. It’s a fairly monastic job working at the Supreme Court,” Robinson said. “We don’t have a lot of social interaction, so being able to be with such smart engaging people, it makes me feel a little better about the future.”