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Government Structure: 4. Vermont’s Judicial Branch

Vermont’s judicial system is comprised of a Supreme Court located in the state capital and a Superior Court organized in six divisions and located in Vermont’s county seats.

The Supreme Court of Vermont

The Supreme Court is the sole appellate court in Vermont and the vast majority of its work is hearing cases on appeal as a matter of law. Most states have a layer of appellate courts lying between district courts and the Supreme Court, but not Vermont. The Supreme Court of Vermont has a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices.

The Superior Court of Vermont

Vermont’s Superior Court was consolidated in 2010 into the following six divisions:

1. Civil Division

2. Criminal Division

3. Environmental Division

4. Family Division

5. Judicial Bureau

6. Probate

While most of this is self-explanatory, a few clarifications will be helpful to understand the system.  Vermont regulates development through Act 250.  The Environmental Court hears appeals from Act 250 proceedings.  

The Judicial Bureau is a specialized court to handle small civic violations, like traffic tickets, alcohol and marijuana cases, and free up the rest of the courts for more serious matters.

Judges are assigned to various county courts and divisions. Vermont uniquely has Assistant Judges or “side judges” who are elected and also sit on Civil, Family and Judicial Bureau cases. Side judges are not required to have any legal training.

The Assistant Judges also serve as the chief administrative officers for county court and sheriff offices.  They receive two salaries: one from the state for their judicial role and one from the county for their administrative duties.

Evidently, this unique position of “side judge” dates back to the days when Vermont was an independent republic.  All the lawyers were trained in England and the Vermonters didn’t trust them.

All the other Vermont judges are appointed by the Governor from a list of candidates prepared by the Judicial Nominating Board and subject to Senate approval.  All judges have six-year terms and are subject to a Retention Vote by the full General Assembly at the end of every term.

The Chief Justice makes a salary of $166,129 plus benefits and all other judges make less.

Government Structure: 3. Vermont’s Legislative Branch

The Vermont General Assembly

As noted in Government Structure: Vermont’s Constitution, the Vermont General Assembly consists of a Senate with 30 members and a House of Representatives with 150 members.

For the Senate, there are 13 districts with one to six Senate seats each depending on population.  This is somewhat of an odd system.  If you live in Burlington, the state’s largest city, you get to vote for six senators representing 20% of the entire senate.  If you live in Randolph, you only get to vote for one.  

Having 30 districts or 15 with two senate seats each might be a more democratic approach. Of course, the district with six senate seats is heavily Democratic, so changing this could be politically difficult as it might jeopardize the current dominance of the Democratic Party. The House of Representatives is better, but not perfect.  Here, there are 104 districts with one or two seats each.

The key legislative position is the Speaker of the House, who is elected by the members of the House of Representatives.  This person gets to control the flow of legislation and the committee assignments of bills put forth for consideration.  If the Speaker doesn’t like a particular bill, he or she can make life very difficult for its passage.  

While the Lt. Governor is the constitutional President of the Senate, the President Pro Tempore, who is elected by the members of the Senate, is the true Senate equivalent to the Speaker of the House with similar influence on the legislative agenda.  Both houses also have Majority and Minority leaders who are elected by their constituent party members to coordinate the various political parties respective legislative agendas.

The Vermont Legislature

The legislature is in session from early January until early May of each year.  Any bills need to be submitted by the end of March to be considered in that session.  The real work of the legislature is carried out in committees, which meet daily throughout the legislative session and are open to the public.  

There are 14 House and 11 Senate standing committees that specialize in areas of government, like Appropriations (spending), Ways and Means (taxation) and Education. There are also 13 standing Joint Committees, as bills need to be approved by both houses. From time to time, Study Committees are formed to analyze particular areas of interest, like the need for Internet service in Vermont.  Last, Committees of Conference are often formed to hammer out differences in a particular piece of legislation between the House and Senate.

The Republican Party controlled the government of Vermont for over one hundred years. This dominance began to change in the late 1950’s and 1960’s.

Today, the General Assembly is firmly controlled by the Democratic Party.  In the Senate, Democrats control 21 of 30 seats, with 7 Republicans and 2 Progressives.  In the House, Democrats hold 83 seats, Republicans 53, Progressives 7 and 7 Independents.  

Vermont is the only state in the US where representatives from a party other than the Republican or Democratic have always had representation in the legislature.

Senators/Legislators make $723.28 per week (for what is normally 16 weeks per year) plus $115/day for lodging or $74/day for food if commuting to the capital. They serve two-year terms.

Vermont state law prohibits state legislators from serving as lobbyists for one year after they leave office.

Government Structure: 2. Vermont’s Executive Branch

 

Vermont’s executive branch is organized into nine departments to run the state, as follows:

1. General Government

This includes the offices of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Treasurer, Administration, Finance and Management, Tax Administration, Auditor of Accounts, Building and General Services, the Labor Relations Board, the state lottery and other functions that don’t fit neatly into the other departments.

2. Protection to Persons and Property

This department handles policing, prosecutions and regulation. Within this department sits the Secretary of State, Attorney General, States Attorney’s, Sheriffs and Deputies, the State Police, the National Guard, Agriculture, Financial and Utility regulators and Liquor Control. Interestingly, the prison system is handled in the Human Services department.

3. Human Services

This is one of the very big cost centers of Vermont. This department administers Medicaid, mental health services, children and family services (welfare), disability, aging and independent living, the veterans home and, as noted above, corrections.

4. Labor

The key programs administered here are unemployment insurance, workers compensation, OSHA and job training.

5. General Education

This is the other big cost center. This department oversees and funds all public K-12 schools in the state.

6. Higher Education

Here, funding available to Vermont’s colleges and universities is administered.

7. Natural Resources

This department includes Fish and Wildlife, Forest, Parks, Recreation and Environmental Conservation.

8. Commerce and Community Development

The key functions here include housing, economic development and tourism.

9. Transportation

This department is responsible for managing Vermont’s transportation infrastructure, including roads, highways, bridges and airports as well as the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.

Vermont Boards, Commissions, and Councils

In addition to these standing government departments, there are over 180 boards, commissions, and councils where citizen volunteers or appointees get to participate and/or advise in government decision-making.

The Informed Vermonter suspects that this may be too many. Most are no doubt required or helpful, like the State Board of Education, the Judicial Nominating Board, the Labor Relations Board and the state pension boards, to name but a few.

However, the need for the Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists and the Governors Council on Physical Fitness and Sports could be questioned by some Vermonters, particularly so if they cost any money.

According to the FY 2017 State of Vermont Executive Budget Recommendation, there are about 9,057 state government employees, excluding the 180 members of the legislature. The Governor is the fourth highest paid employee of the state with a salary $166,046 plus benefits.

Government Structure: 1. The Vermont Constitution

A Bit of History

Vermont has a rich history. When America was only 13 colonies, Vermont was the frontier. While there were some small French outposts, the settlement of Vermont only really began after the French and Indian War in 1763 and the resulting Treaty of Paris, which put Vermont firmly under British control.  

Two colonies, New Hampshire and New York, had competing claims to the land of Vermont. New Hampshire was the first to sell land grants, many in the western part of the territory bordering New York. A few years later, New York began to sell the same land either to the settlers (demanding that they effectively pay twice) or to land speculators in New York.  

The efforts of New York to evict settlers from their land resulted in the formation of the Green Mountain Boys, who effectively waged war on any New York sheriffs brave or foolish enough to enter the territory. As New York, New Hampshire and the Continental Congress couldn’t settle this dispute, Vermont declared itself an independent republic in 1777.

The Republic of Vermont supported the colonies in the Revolutionary War and the Green Mountain Boys distinguished themselves on the battlefield. After the Revolutionary War, and only after some cunning Vermonters threatened to join Quebec, Vermont became the 14th state in 1791 and New York’s land claims were dismissed.

Legal Basis for State Government

The United States is a federal republic where the power to govern is shared by states and the central government. Other federal republics include Canada, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia, to name but a few.  

In the US, the division of power between states and the central government has been a central political issue throughout its history right up to the present day.

The US started out as 13 independent colonies/states and the fight to form a strong central government was fierce, pitting the likes of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (Federalists) against Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams (Anti-Federalists).  

The US Constitution, enacted in 1789, provided a framework for the division of power between states and the federal government. There were 27 “Expressed Powers” granted to the federal government, including the power to tax, declare war and regulate both interstate and foreign commerce.  There was also the “necessary and proper” clause, which empowers the federal government to enact any law necessary and proper for the execution of the Expressed Powers.  

Any powers not explicitly granted to the federal government under the Constitution are the “Reserved Powers” of the states. Subsequent amendments to the Constitution, multiple Supreme Court cases, and the Civil War have had the cumulative effect of strengthening the powers of the federal government, but the debate goes on.

Today, of course, there are 50 states, 50 state governors, 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska only has a single legislative chamber), 50 sets of state law and 50 state judicial systems.

Some states have income taxes and some don’t.  You can smoke pot in a few states but not the others. Development is easy in some and quite difficult in others. Abortion is readily available in some states and not so readily available in others. Prostitution is legal in one state and illegal in all the others. States in the US have real governing power and the laws and regulations across the 50 states can and do differ widely.

The Vermont Constitution

All fifty states in the US have state constitutions. The Vermont Constitution was formally adopted in 1793, but it is largely based on the Republic of Vermont constitution drafted in 1777 (language in the 1777 version condemning New York and King George was removed).  

So, the Vermont constitution effectively pre-dated the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights by ten and thirteen years, respectively. It is a short (8,295 words), eloquent and far reaching document that was way ahead of its time.

The Vermont constitution abolished slavery and provided for freedom of religion, equal protection under the law, the right to counsel and a jury trial, the right to own property, freedom of speech and the press, the right to assemble and the right to bear arms. Militias were to be strictly subordinate to civil power and be disbanded in times of peace, as “standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to liberty.” The constitution also provided for universal suffrage for men, whether property owning or not (women finally got to vote in 1920).

In addition to assuring the rights of individual citizens, the Vermont constitution also set out the framework for the state government based on the concept of separation of powers.

There are three separate and distinct government branches: the Executive, the bicameral General Assembly, consisting of a Senate of 30 elected members and a House of Representatives with 150 elected members (the original constitution had only a single house and the Senate was added by amendment), and the Judiciary.

The Vermont Constitution gives the people the right to change the government, but this has not yet happened and the original framework remains in place today.  

The Vermont Constitution stipulates that the Executive branch of government, together with the Legislature, shall govern the state.  It also provides for six elected Executive branch officials: the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Auditor of Accounts. Clearly, the framers of the Vermont Constitution had little regard for political parties, as Vermont has a long history of electing these officials from different parties.  

In the 2016 election, Phil Scott, a Republican, won the Governor’s office and Democrats/Progressives won the five other positions.  Each of these officials serves two-year terms with no term limits, so Vermont politicians need to justify their continued employment frequently.