Vt. Senate Judiciary committee advances judicial nomination, despite unusual pushback
The Senate Judiciary committee on Friday unanimously voted in favor of former Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett’s judicial nomination, despite testimony that raised questions about her ability to serve on the bench.
Barrett became Orleans County State’s Attorney in 2014, and previously served as a deputy state’s attorney in Bennington. Gov. Phil Scott appointed her as a judge last August. She’s already been serving as a judge since she was appointed while the Legislature was out of session.
Several defense attorneys, in letters and testimony, raised concerns that Barrett’s approach as a county prosecutor was overly-aggressive, and they questioned her ability to be impartial on the bench.
“Attorney Barrett has made it a practice of seeking the maximum penalties and offering settlements that require massive punishments that criminal defendants just can't bear to take. It doesn't happen this way in other counties."Kelly Green, attorney at the Defender General's office
Kelly Green, an attorney in the Defender General’s office, told the committee during a hearing on Feb. 3 that Barrett’s prosecutorial style raises red flags.
“Attorney Barrett has made it a practice of seeking the maximum penalties and offering settlements that require massive punishments that criminal defendants just can't bear to take,” Green said. “It doesn't happen this way in other counties.”
Green also said Barrett’s tactics have contributed to a backlog of cases in Orleans County, a problem that’s worsened due to the pandemic.
“We're talking about fishing game violations, simple misdemeanors,” Green said. “There's no reason for someone to fight tooth and nail to have a 2017 fishing game violation on the docket. It just needs to go to diversion or go away.”
But Barrett told the committee that her constituents liked her approach.
“I ran on the position that I was going to hold people accountable for their actions in the community, and I did that,” she said on Friday. “The state's attorney prior to me chose not to charge categories of crimes, and that was something that was upsetting to the community, and not something I did.”
"I ran on the position that I was going to hold people accountable for their actions in the community, and I did that. The state's attorney prior to me chose not to charge categories of crimes, and that was something that was upsetting to the community, and not something I did.”Jennifer Barrett, former Orleans County state's attorney
In response to criticism that her approach caused a backlog of cases, Barrett told the committee that her use of court diversion and restorative justice programs increased each year she was in office.
Green, and others, also expressed concern about public statements Barrett made several years ago in support of her husband, a former state trooper who was fired for allegedly conducting illegal searches that often targeted Black men.
Barrett said she doesn’t think her husband’s situation has any bearing on her ability to serve as a judge.
“Those actions don't define him and they certainly don't define me now,” she said. “I've worked very hard, every day in one of the least diverse areas of the state to increase diversity in my office, in my community, to advocate for minorities, to advocate for training within the department.”
Ultimately the five-member committee decided to support Barrett’s nomination and voted unanimously in favor of advancing her nomination to the full Senate. Members of the committee said that they felt Barrett had addressed the concerns raised during the process, and pointed to testimony and letters of support she received during the confirmation process.
“I would not be voting no on a judge unless I felt that a mistake had been made and the person was going to be a detriment,” said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth. “And I think you've handled this process ably and with great poise and grace.”
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