Crime and Justice

Franklin County judge tossing hundreds of criminal cases due to backlog

Martin Maley
Judge Martin Maley in St. Albans in 2017. Pool photo by the County Courier

Franklin County Judge Martin Maley has issued an order dismissing hundreds of nonviolent misdemeanor cases in the “interest of justice” in that county due to a big backlog.

Maley, in his three-page ruling, cites delays in prosecuting those cases brought on by Covid-19, staffing shortages and the move to a new electronic filing system for courts.

The implementation and rollout of that filing system, known as Odyssey, had been referred to by one defense attorney as a “hot mess.” 

“This court has never issued such an order,” Maley wrote, “however, given the current circumstances, the court is persuaded that such action is necessary to allow the court to focus on the oldest and most serious cases on the docket, including cases involving defendant’s incarcerated awaiting trial.” 

The judge wrote that there are “hundreds of cases” that have been pending in Franklin County criminal court for more than one or two years, with some dating as far back as 2017.

“The actual number of pending cases is actually difficult to determine with precision,” Maley wrote. “Odyssey presents unique challenges with obtaining those statistics, or at least, displaying them in a comprehensible fashion.”

The order calls for the dismissal of nonviolent misdemeanor cases filed before 2021. Maley attached to his order a listing of the more than 300 hundred cases to be dismissed.

Those cases include driving with suspended license, violations of conditions of release, drug possession, disorderly conduct, retail theft and unlawful mischief.

The judge wrote that he would give the prosecution until Nov. 18 to file objections to the dismissal of any of the cases.

In addition, Maley wrote, he met with Franklin County State’s Attorney Jim Hughes and a public defender in the county to inform them of the plan to dismiss the cases prior to issuing his ruling Thursday.

“We talked about this,” the state’s attorney said in a phone interview Friday afternoon, adding he agreed to the proposal.  

“I think a lot of people, when they found out about this order, it was a shock to them. It wasn’t a shock to the people working in the courthouse and in the criminal justice system in Franklin County,” he said. “We discussed how it was going to work, and it was pretty collaborative.” 

Hughes said he will be reviewing cases for possible objections, particularly the ones involving the violations of court orders.

“I want to make sure that if there are victims that need protection, they are not left in the lurch,” Hughes said.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said Friday afternoon that he welcomed the ruling by Maley, and he did not recall ever seeing such an order before. 

“We’re in very unique times. We’re in a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic,” Valerio said. “I think the conditions for this have existed for quite some time, but it has to get to a point that’s acute before a court issues this kind of blanket ruling.”  

He said in some counties across the state, such as Chittenden County, most low-level cases were already being diverted out of the criminal justice system, easing the pressure of a backlog.

Other counties, particularly in the Northeast Kingdom where court-imposed Covid-19 restrictions have prevented or delayed holding jury trials, are in the same situation as Franklin County, he said.

John Campbell, executive director of the state Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said Friday he was glad the judge is allowing the prosecution to raise objections to the dismissal of a particular case based on “extenuating circumstances.” 

Campbell also said he appreciated that the ruling shed light on the problems that have resulted from the court’s electronic filing system, which was first rolled out in spring 2020 during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Odyssey system has played a major role in this backlog,” Campbell said. “The court administrator’s office underperformed when it came down to the issue of getting the courts open and making it workable to file cases and deal with cases.”  

Patricia Gabel, Vermont’s court administrator, said in a Friday afternoon email that she could not discuss Maley’s ruling, adding that the judiciary does not comment on decisions of individual judges in active cases.

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Alan J. Keays

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