Vermont Supreme Court Hears Arguments at VLS
March 23, 2011
At the Vermont Supreme Court's annual session at Vermont Law School on March 23, teams of lawyers argued seven cases involving issues of criminal procedure, evidence, property, torts, environmental law, administrative law and constitutional law.
The Oakes Hall classroom where the justices presided drew a large number of students, faculty and staff. The day's first two cases involved public records requests and law enforcement officials accused of viewing child pornography while on duty.
In the first case, lawyers for the Rutland Herald, town of Rutland and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 93, Local 1201, argued a 2010 case involving three Rutland Police Department employees. They were accused of viewing child pornography while on duty and were disciplined or dismissed following internal investigations.
The Rutland Herald asked the city to release documents related to these employees pursuant to Vermont's Public Records Act. The city argued that some of the requested material was exempt because it related to investigation of a crime and involved personal documents related to the officers' employment. The trial court held that most of the documents had to be disclosed because that exception to the law only applies during an investigation, whereas the records related to the "management and direction of a law enforcement agency." The trial court also concluded the police department's handling of internal investigations was of high public interest and the documents had to be disclosed. On appeal, the city contended the public's interest could be safeguarded by redacting some of the records and that the lower court failed to perform the required balancing test between the public's interest in overseeing government decisions and the right to privacy in one's personal and economic pursuits.
In the day's second case, lawyers for the Rutland Herald, Vermont State Police and Vermont Attorney General's Office argued a similar Public Records Act case. In 2010, the State Police learned one of its employees might possess child pornography. The State Police conducted an investigation, including searching the employee's residence, and the following day the employee committed suicide. The Herald requested disclosure of all documents and records connected to the investigation. The State declined to produce any of these materials. The trial court granted the State's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the exemption for records compiled in a criminal investigation applied to the records in question. The court also found that materials connected to a related inquest were exempt as records designated confidential by law. On appeal, the Herald claimed the records should be made public or the exemptions should be found unconstitutional under the First Amendment and the Vermont Constitution; and that the Court should order disclosure of inquest materials.