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Small Claims Court Reforms Considered Following Illegal Arrests

A court document.
Emily Corwin
One of hundreds of arrest orders Caledonia County Assistant Judge Roy Vance made without holding contempt hearings or ascertaining defendants' ability to pay.

The Vermont Judiciary is considering reforms to small claims court following the resignation of Caledonia County assistant judge Roy Vance, who hadissued illegal arrest warrants in his court during his two-decade tenure.

More from VPR — Caledonia Judge Unlawfully Ordered Arrests Of Debtors For Years

The proposal would not directly address the question of how and whether defendants should be compelled to appear in court or satisfy judgments. But, advocates said, the legal community’s shock at Vance’s actions has opened the door for other needed reforms.

The proposal would remove “some or all claims” from small claims court to superior court, Brian Grearson, Chief Superior Judge, said in an email.

Reporter Emily Corwin spoke to 'All Things Considered' Host Henry Epp. Listen to their conversation above.

The Judiciary'sCivil Division Oversight Committeeis tasked with ensuring access to justice, and makes recommendations regarding court rules and state law. After Vance’s resignation, committee chair Helen Toor invited a handful of attorneys to propose changes, including Jean Murray with Vermont Legal Aid.

"There need to be judges in small claims." — Jean Murray, Vermont Legal Aid

Murray said Judge Vance’s actions revealed a concerning lack of oversight of small claims decisionmakers. “There need to be judges in small claims,” she said.

Vermont’s small claims courts are overseen by a small number of nonlawyer assistant judges, like Vance, and a lot of part-time volunteer attorneys, known as acting judges. Assistant and acting judges are not subject to judicial retention hearings like other judges.

Grearson said sending some small claims cases to superior court would reduce the need for acting judges.

In July, before the oversight committee had a chance to consider more permanent reforms, Grearson issued a memorandum requiring all warrants to be signed by a superior court judge.

Jay Diaz, a staff attorney with the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union, is ready to see that formalized.

"[Judge Vance] was really running roughshod over people's rights. You know, we haven't seen that elsewhere yet in Vermont, but we have seen it in many other parts of the country." — Jay Diaz, ACLU

Judge Vance, he said, “was really running roughshod over people's rights. You know, we haven't seen that elsewhere yet in Vermont, but we have seen it in many other parts of the country.”

Diaz said he and Murray proposed that arrests be banned in small claims court altogether. Short of that, he said, they asked the Judiciary to adopt the same rules  for small claims are used in family court, when a parent with eligible income refuses to pay child-support.

These requests would not be addressed by a Judiciary decision to reassign small claims cases to superior court.

Murray has a bigger concern about small claims court: Credit card companies.

“Small claims court is supposed to be for people without lawyers to be able to go in and get some help collecting money that’s owed them,” she said, like a tenant collecting an overdue deposit, or an electrician who hasn’t been paid by a homeowner.

"Small claims court is supposed to be for people without lawyers to be able to go in and get some help collecting money that's owed them." — Jean Murray, Vermont Legal Aid

Instead, Murray said, a small number of attorneys are using the low barrier-to-entry in small claims court to collect money from unrepresented and often low-income debtors, on behalf of big collections agencies.

“It’s just not what is supposed to be,” said Murray. “Small claims has relaxed rules of evidence, and it has procedures where the court actually does a few things to help plaintiffs through the process.” If most of the plaintiffs are out-of-state credit card companies represented by lawyers, she said, “that ends up being not fair.”

All of this, Murray added, will be alleviated if credit card cases are removed from Vermont's small claims court and incorporated into the superior court. She hopes that comes to pass.

While the Vermont ACLU would welcome the change, Diaz said “we really want to see substantive changes in how courts behave with regard to low-income people and debt."

His organization's proposals include making it easy for defendants to appear by phone, creating mechanisms that guarantee defendants understand when their income is exempt, and giving creditors access to debtor’s credit reports. Committee Chair Judge Helen Toor and Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson declined to comment on whether these proposals will be considered.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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