Duties and Responsibilities of the Vermont Assistant Judges
The role of the Assistant Judge is varied. They act as their county’s administrators and their duties are described, in part, in VSA 24 Sect. 71a: “Except as provided herein, each county shall provide and own a suitable courthouse, pay all utility and custodial services and keep such a courthouse suitably furnished and equipped for use by the superior court and probate court, together with suitable offices for the county clerk, assistant judges and probate judges….”
VSA 24 Section 131 goes on to state that: “The assistant judges shall have the care and superintendence of county property, may provide for the acceptance and processing of United States passport applications by county clerks pursuant to memorandums of understanding entered into under 4 V.S.A. § 691, may take deeds and leases of real estate to the county, rent or sell and convey unused lands belonging to the county, keep the courthouse, jail, and other county buildings insured, and make needed repairs and improvements in and around the same.”
Yearly, in December and January, the Assistant Judges prepare a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, determining both income and expenses. Income is largely from a property tax assessment on each town based on the value of the town’s Equalized Grand List. Various other income is included such as rents, Notary Public fees, Passport fees, Small Claims fees, and storage of wills.
Each county supports its Sheriff’s Department in its yearly budget. Amounts are also budgeted for the Assistant Judge salaries, utilities, buildings and grounds maintenance, personnel (each county employs a County Clerk and County Treasurer, by statute), equipment and supplies, insurance, legal and auditing expenses, and more. Counties also budget for capital improvements by building a Capital Reserve fund. A copy of the current budget may be obtained by contacting the county clerk.
Assistant Judges, along with the Sheriff, are the face of County Government and are responsible to the constituents who elected them.
Assistant Judges also have a Judicial function. They sit as finders of fact in Civil and Family Court, along side of the presiding Superior Court judge – hence the name: ‘Side Judge.”
Here is the language from 4 VSA § 36. Composition of the Court:
(a) Unless otherwise specified by law, when in session, a Superior Court shall consist of:
(1) For cases in the Civil or Family Division, one presiding Superior judge and two assistant judges, if available.
(2)(A) For cases in the Family Division, except as provided in subdivision (B) of this subdivision (2), one presiding judicial officer and two assistant judges, if available.
(b) Questions of law and fact. In all proceedings, questions of law shall be decided by the presiding judge. In cases not tried before a jury, questions of fact shall be decided by the Court. Mixed questions of law and fact shall be deemed to be questions of law. The presiding judge alone shall decide which are questions of law, questions of fact, and mixed questions of law and fact. Written or oral stipulations of fact submitted by the parties shall establish the facts related therein, except that the presiding judge, in his or her discretion, may order a hearing on any such stipulated fact. Neither the decision of the presiding judge under this subsection nor participation by an assistant judge in a ruling of law shall be grounds for reversal unless a party makes a timely objection and raises the issue on appeal.
(c) Availability of assistant judges. If two assistant judges are not available, the Court shall consist of one presiding judge and one assistant judge. In the event that Court is being held by the presiding judge and one assistant judge and they do not agree on a decision, a mistrial shall be declared. If neither assistant judge is available, the Court shall consist of the presiding judge alone, and the unavailability of an assistant judge shall not constitute reversible error.
(d) Method of determining availability. Before commencing a hearing in any matter in which the Court by law may consist of the presiding judge and assistant judges, the assistant judges physically present in the courthouse shall determine whether they are available for the case. If two or more cases are being heard at one time and assistant judges may by law participate in either, each assistant judge may determine in which case he or she will participate.
(e) Duty to complete hearing or trial. After an assistant judge has decided to participate in a hearing or trial, he or she shall not withdraw therefrom except for cause. However, if the assistant judge is not available for a scheduled hearing or trial or becomes unavailable during trial, the matter may continue without his or her participation, and he or she may not return to participate.
Assistant Judges are a vital component of the court.
In addition, with proper training Assistant Judges may preside as Hearing Officers in Judicial Bureau, as the Judge in uncontested divorce hearings, and as Acting Judge in Small Claims court.