Probate court might be spared from merger

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County Probate Court will continue to function on its own and will not be merged with probate courts in Rutland and Bennington counties, according to legislation recently passed out of the House Judiciary Committee.
The prospect of ongoing autonomy for Addison County Probate Court was cautiously hailed late last week by local lawmakers and court officials. Many of those officials had feared that a major court restructuring bill, H.470, would result in Addison Probate being merged into a “southwestern district,” as had been suggested in a report issued last fall by the Vermont Commission on Judicial Operation.
As it stands, bill H.470 includes many recommendations in the report, which made suggestions intended to streamline court operations and save money.
Probate courts adjudicate cases involving guardianships, adoptions, estates and other issues.
The report recommended consolidating the state’s current 14 probate court districts into five regions, each presided over by one judge who would travel between the courthouses in that region.
But local officials — and in particular Addison County Probate Court Judge Eleanor “Misse” Smith — argued that the consolidation would dramatically affect the quality of services Vermont must legally, and sometimes very quickly, provide to some of the state’s most vulnerable people.
Smith, last November, said point-blank that she would not run for re-election if Addison County Probate Court was merged into a southwestern court district.
It appears as though she may be able to put her campaign signs back into circulation.
House Judiciary on March 19 voted out a version of H.470 that preserves the autonomy of Addison County Probate Court. Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is a senior member of House Judiciary and lobbied for his home county’s cause, Smith noted.
“I’m pleased for the citizens of Addison County and I really appreciate all of the work that Willem has done,” Smith said.
Officials noted, however, that H.470 stipulates that Addison County Probate’s two clerks should come under state oversight and therefore be subject to performing duties, as needed, in other courts within Middlebury’s Frank Mahady Courthouse.
“We are moving toward a uniform clerking pool,” noted Jewett, who is a lawyer.
Bill H.470 has not moved into the House Appropriations Committee. While the legislation could be tweaked before a final vote, Jewett is confident Addison County’s interests will be preserved.
“This (Addison County Probate) part won’t change dramatically, I don’t think,” said Jewett, who said he and others were able to prevail on fellow lawmakers that it did not make sense, due to geography and other factors, to merge Addison Probate with the two southern counties.
While Smith is pleased that Addison Probate will apparently continue to stand alone, she is disappointed that other county courts are to be regionalized through H.470. She believes the state should first invest in computer technology linking the state’s probate courts before proceeding with their consolidation.
“If they really want the (cost) savings, what they should do is put the technological infrastructure in place,” Smith said. “The way it is now, 14 counties are not on the same computer system.”
Smith noted the Legislature in 2009 passed a bill requiring that there be only one probate court per county by February of 2011. There are currently a total of 16. Smith said that smaller consolidation should be allowed to happen before considering further regionalization of the courts.
“What probate court judges are saying is, ‘Let’s try this in an orderly fashion,’” Smith said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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