Vermont Supreme Court visits Hartford High in first road show since COVID-19

After hearing oral arguments for two cases and a question and answer period, Vermont Supreme Court Justices have lunch with Hartford High School students in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Associate Justice William Cohen speaks with students Brayden Trombly, Frank Cushing and Payton Bessette. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After hearing oral arguments for two cases and a question and answer period, Vermont Supreme Court Justices have lunch with Hartford High School students in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Associate Justice William Cohen speaks with students Brayden Trombly, Frank Cushing and Payton Bessette. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

After listening to oral argument in two cases, members of the Vermont Supreme Court move on to a question and answer period with Hartford High School students on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in White River Junction, Vt. Taking turns answering questions are Chief Justice Paul Reiber, left, Associate Justice Harold Eaton, Associate Justice Karen Carroll and Justice William Cohen. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After listening to oral argument in two cases, members of the Vermont Supreme Court move on to a question and answer period with Hartford High School students on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in White River Junction, Vt. Taking turns answering questions are Chief Justice Paul Reiber, left, Associate Justice Harold Eaton, Associate Justice Karen Carroll and Justice William Cohen. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Vermont Supreme Court Associate Justice Harold Eaton, left, Chief Justice Paul Reiber, Associate Justice Karen Carroll and Associate Justice William Cohen listen to oral arguments in the State of Vermont v. Jason Bockus at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 26, 2023. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Justices resumed the tradition of hearing oral arguments at high schools across the state. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Vermont Supreme Court Associate Justice Harold Eaton, left, Chief Justice Paul Reiber, Associate Justice Karen Carroll and Associate Justice William Cohen listen to oral arguments in the State of Vermont v. Jason Bockus at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 26, 2023. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Justices resumed the tradition of hearing oral arguments at high schools across the state. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Hartford High junior Felicity Adams asks a question of the Vermont Supreme Court on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in White River Junction, Vt. The court was at the school as part of its fall tour to bring the courtroom to Vermont high schools. Adams asked two questions, first about media bias, then about how young people could become more involved in the judicial process and work through the apparent age gap between them and court officials. Chief Justice Paul Reiber encouraged young people to come to Montpelier to the Supreme Court building and exchanged email addresses with Adams. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford High junior Felicity Adams asks a question of the Vermont Supreme Court on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in White River Junction, Vt. The court was at the school as part of its fall tour to bring the courtroom to Vermont high schools. Adams asked two questions, first about media bias, then about how young people could become more involved in the judicial process and work through the apparent age gap between them and court officials. Chief Justice Paul Reiber encouraged young people to come to Montpelier to the Supreme Court building and exchanged email addresses with Adams. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-30-2023 8:49 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The podium and raised bench on the stage at Hartford High School weren’t props in a student play. On Thursday, the judicial-looking decor was used by the real deal.

Throughout the day, the justices of the Vermont Supreme Court held a trio of hearings in front of high schoolers, faculty and staff. Once an annual event, this is the first time the state’s highest court had held proceedings in one of the state’s high schools since the COVID pandemic.

“I think often whatever we’re talking about, whether it’s the legislative process or the judicial process, feels distant,” said Hartford High Principal Nelson  Fogg. “Our students engage in it, but it’s always at a distance. Today it was very present.”

With defendants and prosecutors already seated on stage, a hush fell over the crowd. Clad in back robes, four justices took the stage and commanded a level of respect not always shown to those addressing a large school assembly. Due to a health issue, Associate Justice Nancy Waples attended virtually.

“Please rise for the Vermont Supreme Court justices,” the moderator said.

And all rose.

By this point in the day, the students were familiar with the justices. They’d actually just come from lunch with them, at the request of the justices themselves, who shared tables with their student hosts.

The timing for this year’s “On the Road” Vermont Supreme Court hearing, as it’s known, was particularly convenient. The court only just moved back into its Montpelier building since waters from this summer’s flooding breached the electrical and heating systems.

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Catherine Bock, 75, of Charlotte, Vt., traveled south for the occasion. In the last hearing of the day, her petitioning against the Vermont Public Utilities Commission had come to a head.

Last year, Bock appealed a decision by the commission to allow Vermont Gas Systems — the only natural gas company currently authorized to operate in the state — to sign onto a seven-year contract that would pipe in “renewable natural gas” from New York’s largest landfill, Seneca Meadows in Waterloo, N.Y.

Bacteria breaking down organic waste in the landfill is used to create the methane gas. 

Bock appealed the decision on the ground that burning natural gas — even if its “renewable” — contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, putting the proposal in conflict with Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act, which legally requires the state to cut emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

She was represented in Thursday’s hearings by Bristol, Vt.-based attorney James Dumont.

Cutting emissions takes a long time, Dumont argued, and burning anything that releases greenhouse gases is a step away from a quickly approaching reduction deadline.

“Resources are limited, ratepayer funds are limited, time and energy of regulatory funds are limited, and you might not get one or two bites of the apple,” Dumont said. “If we’re going to spend ratepayer money, let’s do it in a way that’s going to be effective.”

Vermont Gas should instead invest the money into non-emitting heating and energy reduction methods, like insulation and heat pumps, he said.

“But isn’t the utility (under the Global Warming Solutions Act) obligated to do something in order to reduce greenhouse gases, and this is a start?” asked Justice William Cohen.

Matthew Greer, a lawyer with Burlington firm Sheehey, Furlong & Behm, represented Vermont Gas Systems. He argued that renewable natural gas is better than many fossil fuel alternatives.

“One molecule of renewable natural gas supplied under this contract would otherwise be one molecule of fossil fuel gas if (Vermont Gas) didn’t engage in this contract,” Greer said.

The back and forth was perhaps most relevant for the high schoolers in the audience, who will bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change as the planet continues to warm in the decades to come.

But even more immediately, the hearings were a chance for students to get up close to litigation in real-time.

Nathaniel Flockton, 15, is a sophomore, but he’s thinking ahead to college already, tallying up possible career paths and slashing others. He plans to major in mechanical engineering and minor in film studies — but he hasn’t totally ruled out a career in law.

“I find it interesting,” Flockton said. “So it’s good to know, that this is something I could be interested in.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.