Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Jan. 13, 2021

Members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee speak with state court officials during a virtual meeting on Wednesday.

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BENNINGTON — To facilitate the restart of Vermont jury trials, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee suggested designating frontline court personnel as a priority group to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

State court officials have put jury trials on hold since March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Vermont, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease.

When the vaccine was rolled out in December, the administration of Gov. Phil Scott directed Vermont’s initial doses toward high-risk health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. (Officials announced Friday that the next phase of the state’s vaccine distribution plan would prioritize older Vermonters, starting with those who are at least 75 years old.)

“I think that the judicial branch has to start pestering the executive branch immediately for recognition that you are a frontline group of people that need to be vaccinated,” Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, told state court officials during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s meeting on Wednesday.

Until the necessary court personnel are vaccinated, Benning said, “there isn’t any question that the judicial branch of government is stuck in a holding pattern and will not be able to give people their constitutional rights.”

State Court Administrator Patricia Gabel said she and the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court got in touch with the executive branch when the vaccine rollout was first announced to discuss prioritizing frontline court workers, such as security staff and judges. They’re still waiting to hear back, she told the committee.

Sen. Benning told Gabel and the court’s chief administrative judge, Brian Grearson, they and the committee should “all act in concert” to find ways to get jury trials restarted.

After a postponement late last year, Grearson said he is hoping criminal jury trials can resume in mid- to late-February through a case in Windham County. Jury draw for the case was originally scheduled to take place Dec. 7, but it was delayed following a spike of COVID-19 cases after Halloween.

Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio said he isn’t optimistic that the trial would push through next month. One concern from his office in Windham County, he said, is the number of staffers who have impaired immune systems — among the people at highest risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“I don’t see how, infrastructure-wise, Vermont is physically capable of providing safe jury trials for everybody who has to be involved until vaccinations take place,” Valerio said.

The committee vice-chairman, Sen. Philip Baruth, had earlier asked a representative of the Vermont Department of Corrections if state inmates could be prioritized for the vaccine. As of Wednesday, the department said its in-state inmate population stood at around 1,200.

“It’s such a small population at such high risk … I just don’t understand why the administration doesn’t just do that?” said Baruth, D-Chittenden.

Since March, 41 DOC staff members and 244 incarcerated individuals have tested positive for COVID-19. They include state prisoners housed at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., the department said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, has scheduled calling on a representative of the Agency of Health and Human Services on Friday to answer their questions about vaccinations for court personnel and inmates.

The committee meetings are streamed live on its YouTube channel. Its meeting agenda and a link to the livestream can be found at https://legislature.vermont.gov/committee/detail/2022/29.

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.


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