Amid the local races for the Vermont Legislature, and with the leading two candidates for governor having Lamoille County ties, it’s easy to lose sight of a three-way race for two assistant judges.
But while legislators and the governor spend their time in Montpelier making laws, assistant judges spend their time in Hyde Park, helping to interpret those laws.
A uniquely Vermont office, assistant judges — also known as side judges because they sit to either side of the presiding judge in court proceedings — historically were elected to serve as the eyes and ears of a county when the presiding judge is, more often than not, from elsewhere.
They also help oversee the county courthouse budget, allocate money for the sheriff’s department, maintain buildings and grounds, and handle courthouse administration.
Chittenden County assistant judge Connie Cain Ramsey wrote, in a brief history of the job, “During the years prior to Vermont’s statehood, the Circuit Judge (or traveling judge) presided over the adjudication of Vermont laws. Independent-minded Vermonters, with the battle for statehood fresh in their minds, were not quick to trust the traveling judges from New York and Boston as well as British Colonial Judges, who traveled from their homeland to Vermont counties with little or no chance to familiarize themselves with the communities they served.”
Ramsey wrote that the duty of these “lay judges” was to provide the traveling judges — today, they still rotate from county to county roughly once a year — with facts about the area and offer comfort to county residents that they had someone on the bench representing them.
After more than 200 years, Vermont’s assistant judges lost much of their authority in the early 1980s, when the Chittenden side judges overruled the judge in the murder trial of Louis Hamlin III, giving him a much stiffer sentence, based on the outrage of residents. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling, and eventually side judges were no longer allowed on criminal cases or any case involving a trial by jury.
Vermont election law doesn’t require sheriffs to have law enforcement experience, nor are state’s attorneys required to have a law degree or any trial experience, although they need credentials to actually do the jobs of investigating and prosecuting criminal cases in the various counties.
Likewise, assistant judges aren’t required to have law degrees, although many do.
Here are the three candidates — incumbent Democrat Joel Page of Cambridge and challengers Brooke Batchelder Wright, I-Morristown, and Madeline Motta, D-Stowe.
Incumbent side judge Karen Bradley is retiring this year.
Page has been one of the county’s side judges for four years, but he’s been working at the courthouse nearly every day for close to four decades. He was Lamoille County state’s attorney for 33 years before he decided to run for assistant judge in 2014.
He is an eighth-generation Vermonter who grew up in Colchester and graduated from the University of Vermont and from the University of Maine School of Law. Page lives in Jeffersonville with his wife and has two adult children.
All that time in the courthouse made the old building special to him. He’s interested in historical preservation, and he touts his role as a side judge in getting a long-stalled courthouse overhaul across the finish line.
“That was one of the main attractions for me,” he said. “It seemed like a good time to get involved. I had some political connections and I think it helped a lot.”
When sitting next to the presiding judge, Page said he and Bradley aren’t supposed to bring anything other than the facts of a case to bear — no sob stories about the divorcing parents’ drinking or spending habits or their family histories. Sometimes, he said, you just “have to tune it out a bit, but you also have to be tuned in to the facts and good points that come up.”
“Family court is more emotional, because it deals with personalities, and the ‘property’ is, more often, children,” Page said. “It’s a tough docket because it’s emotionally draining to see case after case.”
A sense of place can come in really handy for presiding judges, most of whom aren’t from Lamoille County or familiar with anything other than the road in and out. For instance, a judge might not require a Cambridge resident to check in with authorities in Stowe if he or she knew the two towns are more than an hour apart half the year when the road over Smugglers’ Notch is closed.
The current presiding judge, Megan Shafritz, is the third in the Lamoille County court since Page became an assistant judge. When it comes down to it, Page said, the best thing a side judge can do is simply be there for the presiding judge, since the chief robe-wearer has to handle all the dockets — civil, criminal, family, probate, traffic.
“Day after day, week after week, month after month, and other than an assistant law clerk, they’re pretty much alone,” Page said. “So, it helps to have intelligent and engaged people to talk with.”
Brooke Batchelder Wright
Wright is the only one of the three candidates without a law degree, but she has been familiar with the duties of an assistant judge since she was a child.
A seventh-generation Vermonter, Wright was born and raised in Alburgh, where her mother, Joanne Batchelder, is one of Grand Isle’s two assistant judges — and is also on that county’s Nov. 6 election ballot this year. She said she has memories of her mom in the job, and has consulted her about the position.
“So, I feel like I have a good sense of the position,” she said. “This is why we love Vermont, right? This is a position that is so unique to Vermont.”
After graduating from college, Wright went camping on the Green River Reservoir and fell in love with Lamoille County, and has been a resident for the last 20 years. She holds a degree in mental health and human services and has been a teacher, private tutor, and local musician in the county. She is currently employed at Bishop Marshall and Blessed Sacrament Church.
Her husband, Joe Wright, is employed by the federal government.
The couple has seven children, and she said she would bring a family-first outlook to the job. She said that being a mother and a teacher is “an asset” for the job.
“You could say that having seven kids kind of qualifies me for anything,” she said.
For one, she said you can’t run a large family without some knowledge of an operating budget.
Second, she said many of the cases in which assistant judges are most useful are in family court, having to do with emotional things like child support and custody.
As Page said, side judges can only advise based on the facts of the case, and not how he or she knows the family. Wright said she understands that, and isn’t afraid to disagree with the presiding judge on some aspects of a case.
But Wright thinks someone who has been through the work of raising seven kids — four boys ages 12-19 and three younger daughters — gives her an innate understanding of how families work, combined with 20 years of knowing Lamoille County’s demographics.
“I feel like I know the area very well, especially its children,” Wright said. The assistant judge “needs to be someone who can listen to a person and make a decision that’s good for the community.”
Wright said she opted not to put an R or D next to her name because she doesn’t think a judicial job ought to be affiliated with a political party.
Motta has lived in Lamoille County for only five years, but she’s been in Vermont for 40, and has made a statewide impact, currently chairing the Vermont Ethics Commission.
She lives in Stowe with her son, where she works as a corporate and government ethics compliance consultant.
Motta holds numerous collegiate degrees — a law degree from the University of Massachusetts, and a doctorate-level degree from McGill University, where she added a master’s degree in social work. She said her 450-page doctoral thesis on fiduciary obligation law was “so thorough” that it was published by the university.
In her early law career, Motta worked in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and later as a policy analyst and health planner with the Vermont Agency of Human Services. She is familiar with the Lamoille County courthouse through her work with the guardian ad litem program.
Motta also belongs to numerous associations: Council on Governmental Ethics Laws, Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, Ethics & Compliance Initiative, Bentley College, Society of Quality Assurance, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Board, and the Canadian Association of University Research Administrators.
So, with all those legal credentials, what attracts Motta to a job that is largely rooted in folksy Vermont jurisprudence?
She said as she “looked back at this long progression of a career,” two themes emerged: advocacy for the vulnerable and the dual principles of fairness and justice, saying of the latter, “I go right after this.”
“I have this need to advocate for our most vulnerable residents and, sadly, their children,” she said.
Plus, she doesn’t think the side judge position has to be an afterthought, saying it “has to be attuned to the modern way of life” just like any other aspect of the judiciary.
And she said that, while she would do a good job in advising the presiding judge, she would still act independently, based on her knowledge of the law. She said she’d be interested in serving on the state judicial conduct board, which investigates complaints about judges.
Although Vermont doesn’t require assistant judges to have law degrees, Motta clearly thinks her resume makes her a better candidate than Wright. Motta even took a dig at Wright’s lack of legal experience, saying, “I’m not gonna call my mom up and say, ‘What do I do?’ I can find the answer myself.”
“If I were having to vote for side judge, I’d vote for the one with the most experience,” she said. “You want someone who’s competent in law and competent in life.”