New judge takes bench at Addison County Courthouse
MIDDLEBURY — The regular changing of the guard within Vermont’s local courthouses has brought a new presiding judge to Addison County — Samuel Hoar Jr., who replaces Judge Robert Mello, who has been transferred to Franklin County Superior Court.
Addison County’s new judge hopes to be spending the next two years in Addison County’s courthouse, and he does not mind getting a change of scenery on a regular basis.
“Overall, I favor the concept of rotation,” Hoar said. “With the limited resources that we have in this state … we couldn’t have a model where you have one judge who spent all of his of her time in Addison County or Burlington. The chief judge needs to have some flexibility in that respect.
“There is some advantage of bringing fresh ideas and fresh perspective into different courthouses, and not letting relationships get either too cozy or too stale.”
Hoar graduated from Boston University Law School in 1985 and then clerked for a year for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston. He moved to Vermont in 1987, taking a job with the Burlington law firm of Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew P.C., practicing civil litigation. He became a partner at the firm in 1992. Hoar is past president of the Vermont Bar Association and the Vermont Bar Foundation. He has also served as a member of the Vermont Supreme Court Civil Rules Advisory Committee and its Jury Policy Committee.
“(Becoming a judge) is not something I really started thinking about until later in my career,” Hoar acknowledged. “It wasn’t my career goal, ever. But I think in my heart of hearts, it’s something I might have always wanted to do.”
He first developed an affinity for the profession while clerking for federal Judge Bailey Aldrich in Boston.
“He was a brilliant and committed jurist,” Hoar recalled. “If I could be half the judge that he was, I would be very happy with myself.”
After a long and satisfying career as a lawyer, Hoar applied for a vacant judgeship within the Vermont Superior Court system early last year. Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed him to the position and he was sworn in on March 26, 2014. Soon after, Judge Hoar received his first assignment — as one of what were then six judges in Chittenden Superior Court at the Edward J. Costello Courthouse in Burlington, dealing mainly with criminal cases.
All of a sudden, he was seeing the legal system from an entirely different perspective.
“It’s an interesting transition,” Hoar said of his switch from arguing before a judge to himself donning the black robe. “I’d like to think I was ready for it, personally and professionally. There’s a lot more to being a judge than even the most experienced lawyers will appreciate. There is a quick and steep learning curve, but lots of resources and support from within the judiciary and without to climb that curve.”
The judge wondered, at the outset, whether his lawyering instincts would influence his comportment on the bench.
“I wondered how it would be, watching another lawyer do an examination and wanting to jump in there myself,” Hoar said. “I am happy to say, that hasn’t been an issue. Every now and then, I think, ‘Hmm, I might do this differently,’ but generally that hasn’t been the concern that I thought it might be.”
Vermont’s limited crop of Superior Court judges are rotated amongst the state’s 14 counties on an annual basis, and sometimes every two years. Hoar was pleased to learn this summer that his next stop would be the Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury.
As the presiding judge in Addison County, Hoar must wear several judicial hats. He is the presiding judge for civil, criminal and family court matters. He also hears appeals of cases from the county’s probate court.
“I’m really still getting familiar with the docket and how it runs,” Hoar said. “So far, the workload has been manageable, but there is not a single down minute in my day. I am very busy in the courtroom, and then back (in my chambers).”
He pointed to a short wooden stand next to the door of his chambers on which the cases pile up, one folder after another, waiting for his attention. There’s a pile for each of the three court divisions over which he presides. Some of the paperwork involves quick and basic decisions, such as clarification of a procedural question. But there are also more complex tasks, such as considering requests for summary judgment in cases. Those can take a half hour or more to consider.
“When I come off the bench, I’ve got a few seconds to collect myself and then I have paper that I have to move,” he said.
But the judge stressed that he gets help from three sources — what he called “an incredible court staff” that manages the paper flow and keeps him on task; a law clerk who assists him three days per week; and a second judge, John Valente, who will soon complete his orientation and assist Hoar for one day per week.
“I manage to get done every day what is put in front of me, but there are bottlenecks,” Hoar said. “There is stuff that doesn’t get here because of schedule time in court.”
Hoar noted Addison County’s large and growing number of juvenile cases, a trend the Addison Independent reported in an in-depth story last May. The judge noted that Addison County has been recording the third-largest juvenile docket in the state, behind only Chittenden and Franklin counties.
The number of CHINS (Children In Need of Supervision) petitions filed at the Addison County courthouse alleging abuse or neglect of a child has increased by 62 percent since 2010, the Independent reported. Termination of parental rights petitions in juvenile cases have increased by 21 percent locally during that same timeframe.
Members of the local judiciary and child advocates agreed the surge in cases — involving neglected, abused and delinquent children, as well as those who court officials deem necessary to remove from their homes — can at least in part be attributed to the growing opiate addiction problem in the state.
“What is really, really scary is it used to be it was children in the 13-to-17 age range who were driving the juvenile docket,” Hoar said. “It’s now zero to three. In that cohort, a super-majority (of the cases) are parents with substance abuse problems. We are seeing the consequences of the heroin epidemic that the governor highlighted, in every docket. It is really troubling in the CHINS docket.”
The judge noted that state authorities are given a timeline of one year in which to achieve the goal of a returning a foster child to his or her parents. But the average timeline for the successful recovery of a person addicted to drugs is approximately 14 months, he noted.
“Those two timelines don’t work,” Hoar said.
Attorneys, defendants and judicial staff who spend a lot of time in the courtroom have an opportunity to learn the style of a presiding judge. Though he has been on the bench for but a short while, Judge Hoar exhibits an unmistakable demeanor and set of principles in his handling of the business that comes before him.
“It stems from an understanding of 30 years of working in the judicial system that this is a system that can be profoundly dehumanizing, and therefore, much of what I do is driven by a desire to humanize the process as much as possible,” Hoar said.
With that in mind, Hoar welcomes all parties when they come into the courtroom, and wishes them a “good day” when they leave.
“I recognize that whenever somebody comes in and is sitting in front of a guy wearing a black robe, it is far from his or her best day,” he said. “It’s also about encouraging the parties in cases to treat each other with dignity and respect, and to work collaboratively as human beings to solve what are profound human problems, and to try to be a facilitator as much as I am a ‘decider.’”
Addison County Superior Court acting Clerk Teri Corsones said the recent transition in judges at the courthouse has been very smooth.
“We were thrilled to have Judge Mello and we are equally as thrilled to have Judge Hoar,” Corsones said. “They are both so dedicated to the law and so professional and respectful to staff, litigants and the public. It makes our jobs much easier and pleasurable.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]