What’s the best path to a fair verdict?
“Fairness depends on where you’re sitting,” attorney Chris Maley told senators Tuesday morning.
A bill before the Senate Committee on Judiciary could change how juries decide civil suits in Vermont by scrapping the requirement that they reach a unanimous verdict. S.178 would require agreement among only a supermajority, or two-thirds, of jurors unless the parties in the case agree otherwise.
Maley, a plaintiff’s attorney who testified before the committee Tuesday morning, argued a supermajority is fairer and “more consistent with the American way, in terms of majority rule.” Maley and other attorneys have been advocating for this change for two decades, he said.
According to Maley’s written testimony, 26 states allow for a less-than-unanimous decision in a civil case.
Maley also argued that this political moment and cultural climate made the revision more necessary. The prevalence of conspiratorial thinking, he said, could seed some irrational jurors.
“We’re in a more divided country with more extreme views,” Maley said.
A 2002 report by the Vermont Supreme Court, which Maley submitted in his written testimony, recommended eliminating the unanimous verdict requirement. The report suggested that changing the rule could prevent hung juries and speed up deliberations, and would relieve jurors from compromising on what they believe to be true.
But Jennifer McDonald, a trial lawyer with Downs Rachlin Martin, pushed back on the notion that majority-rule is fairer.
“The minority view is not always irrational,” McDonald said.
McDonald said she had serious concerns about the bill and believed that ending the unanimity requirement would mean some jurors’ opinions would be dismissed in deliberations.
“If any voices on a jury do not matter, that is what will undermine the system,” McDonald said.
— Riley Robinson
IN THE KNOW
After more than a decade in office, Secretary of State Jim Condos is retiring from his post overseeing Vermont’s statewide elections system at the end of his current term.
The 30-plus-year veteran of local and state politics announced his plan to vacate his seat in a Tuesday afternoon virtual news conference.
Condos was first elected to his seat in 2010 after serving as a state senator for Chittenden County for eight years and South Burlington city councilor for 18 years.
— Sarah Mearhoff
A bill before the Senate Committee on Transportation would require Vermonters ages 75 and older to retake road and vision tests to renew their driver’s licenses.
The bill, S.276, was introduced by Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange.
In a committee meeting Tuesday morning, Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, asked what data informed lawmakers’ decision to draw a line at age 75.
“It’s an arbitrary number,” MacDonald replied.
Greg Marchildon, the Vermont state director for AARP, testified against the bill Tuesday. While AARP supports safe driving, he said, the age cutoff was not a good proxy for measuring physical or cognitive conditions that would impact someone’s ability to drive.
“Age itself doesn’t cause car crashes,” Marchildon said.
— Riley Robinson
The House inaugurated a new member Tuesday.
After taking the oath of office, Rep. Wayne Laroche, R-Franklin, sat in seat 107 and was appointed to the committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
Gov. Phil Scott announced on Monday that Laroche would represent House District Franklin-5. He replaces former Rep. Paul Martin, R-Franklin, who resigned last week.
Laroche was commissioner of the Fish & Wildlife Department under Gov. Jim Douglas from 2003 to 2011. He later worked as a staff scientist for Lake Champlain International, Inc., according to the governor’s office, focusing on water quality and fisheries in the Lake Champlain basin. Laroche retired in 2018 from the Bureau of Wildlife Management at the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“I knew Wayne when I was in the state Senate, when he served in the Douglas Administration. I remember him as being competent and committed to public service,” Scott said in a statement.
— Lola Duffort
The budget adjustment bill, whose price tag is approaching $370 million, will be settled in a conference committee.
A Senate-passed version of H.679 made substantial amendments to the House bill, and the lower chamber voted Tuesday to request a conference. House Appropriations Chair Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier; Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland; and Rep. Kimberly Jessup, D-Middlesex, will negotiate on the House’s behalf.
Budget adjustments are not usually big or controversial enough to warrant a conference committee. The last time was 10 years ago, in 2012, per Theresa Utton-Jerman, a senior staff associate at the Joint Fiscal Office.
— Lola Duffort
Will the chamber attempt an override? House leadership is “still deciding,” according to Conor Kennedy, chief of staff to House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington.
— Lola Duffort
How much THC should be in a vape pen?
Disagreement on tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, limits in legalized recreational cannabis came out into the open at the Statehouse on Tuesday.
The Vermont Cannabis Control Board is recommending that the Legislature eliminate the limit on THC in solid cannabis concentrates. Current law sets a maximum limit of 60% THC in solid concentrates.
The board’s executive director, Brynn Hare, told the House Committee on Government Operations that the solvents used to eliminate THC from cannabis are harmful.
The Vermont Medical Society pushed back.
Jill Sudhoff-Guerin, policy and communications consultant for the society, said high concentrations of THC are driving people to emergency rooms and urged the committee to maintain the limits.
Eliminating the THC limit is the biggest change proposed in H.548, a bill that proposes several other more technical changes to the law that legalizes recreational cannabis.
— Fred Thys
When Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, walked into the House on Tuesday, a new legislative page came up to her to thank her for sponsoring H.628, a bill that would make it easier for Vermonters to amend their birth certificates to reflect their gender identity.
“It was unexpected and absolutely heartwarming,” Small said of the spontaneous interaction with the page, one of many eighth-graders who spend weeks at the Statehouse each session supporting the Legislature. “Youth are watching, and they are seeing this change, and they are excited about it.”
The House approved H.628 by voice vote Tuesday. Following a final vote in the House, likely on Wednesday, it would then move to the Senate for consideration.
— Ethan Weinstein
Under Vermont law, once teachers sign a contract to teach for the upcoming school year, they must honor it. A teacher who breaks a contract without “just cause” can be barred from teaching in a public school for the rest of the academic year.
But the Senate Committee on Education is considering S.162, which would give teachers a roughly two-month window in the spring to search for and accept new jobs — even while under contract to teach elsewhere.
That bill has divided Vermont’s education sector. The state’s teachers union argues that the bill simply gives teachers a right that other workers take for granted: the ability to look for a new job, even after agreeing to work elsewhere.
But school administrators say that it could leave districts scrambling to fill positions before the beginning of the school year.
“A contract is a contract is a contract,” Mark Tucker, the superintendent of Caledonia Central Supervisory Union, told the Senate Committee on Education last week.
— Peter D’Auria
ON THE MOVE
The Senate formally approved H.361, a bill to change Brattleboro’s charter, by voice vote Tuesday with no discussion. The bill would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections, and to serve on the selectboard and as Town Meeting representatives.
Later in the day, at his weekly press conference, Gov. Phil Scott reiterated his hesitation to lower the voting age and said it “should be debated in the Legislature on a statewide basis rather than piecemeal in one community.”
— Riley Robinson
ON THE FIFTH FLOOR
Vermont plans to drop its recommendation that all schools require masking for students at the end of February, Gov. Phil Scott said at a press conference Tuesday.
Instead, it will return to guidance that would recommend schools end masking if more than 80% of their students are vaccinated against Covid-19, he said. The administration first proposed that rule at the beginning of the school year but delayed its implementation as cases rose and the Delta variant became the dominant strain.
It’s unclear how many schools meet this 80% rule. Scott said state officials planned to gather that data for next week. But he also teased the possibility of lifting the mask recommendation for all schools at an unspecified later date.
— Erin Petenko
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
Chef Bryant Palmer reports that the special tomorrow will be chicken tikka masala.
Quite a few people got older today (or recently).
Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, received a belated birthday shoutout on the House floor from Rep. Charles ‘Butch’ Shaw, R-Pittsford. Shaw claimed that he would “never mention a lady’s age” but proceeded to note that Emmons — the House’s longest-serving member — was born the same year “Rock Around the Clock” topped the charts.
“I will get even with him,” Emmons said when it was her turn on the floor, before announcing that it had also recently been Hartland Democratic Rep. John Bartholomew’s birthday the day prior.
“I may be the senior member here in this body, but I think he is more senior than me on our birthday,” she said. “We were born the exact same day, 15 minutes apart.”
But that’s not all! Rep. Michael Yantachka, D-Charlotte, also rose to wish Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, a happy birthday and to note he shared the distinct pleasure of sharing a birthday with her.
On the Senate side, Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, toasted Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland, adding that Hooker shared a birthday with Galileo, and that on this day in 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill authorizing female attorneys to argue before the Supreme Court.
Cheers to all the Acquariuses (Acquariai?) out there.
— Lola Duffort and Riley Robinson
WHAT’S ON TAP
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 16
1:45 p.m. — House Human Services will get an update on Covid-19 contact tracing from the state epidemiologist and the state’s contact tracing contractor.
2 p.m. — Senate Finance will hear from the state auditor, the Joint Fiscal Office and the Department of Taxes on adjustments to the school funding formula.
3 p.m. — Senate Education has invited Health Commissioner Mark Levine and Education Secretary Dan French to discuss mandatory vaccines for schools.
WHAT WE’RE READING
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