Local government

Last Page: Prosecutor, side judge retires after four decades

Retiring Lamoille County side judge and longtime prosecutor Joel Page. Photo by Glenn Callahan

by Tommy Gardner, News Editor, News & Citizen (Morrisville)

Republished with permission from the February 9, 2023 News & Citizen

Joel Page has left the building, one that he helped spruce up after a century of operation.

The former Lamoille County state’s attorney and assistant judge hung up his robe Feb. 1, marking 41 years of working day in and day out at the county courthouse in Hyde Park village.

In retirement, Page doesn’t expect to practice law at all, and even chose to change his professional status to “inactive.” Not to say he’ll collect dust. On Monday, after an interview with this paper, he was headed out to ski some laps at the Smugglers’ Notch Nordic Center. And he’s the president of the Cambridge Historical Society, which keeps him busy.

He’s not going to write a tell-all memoir, even though he enjoys reading such books by others in the profession. But he is “basically unleashed,” which means he can comfortably speak his mind at, say, town meeting.

“When you are in the judiciary, you basically have a muzzle on and you’re not allowed to give your opinion on anything that might end up coming into the court,” he said. “Now, I’m pretty much free to say what I want.”

As of June 2016, Joel Page had been Lamoille County’s chief prosecutor for 32 years, and argued strongly for the wholesale renovations at the Lamoille County Courthouse in Hyde Park; the courthouse was closed for months during construction, and moved into temporary quarters at a Morrisville motel. Andrew Martin photo.

Trial by fire’
Page, who lives in Jeffersonville, is a seventh-generation Vermonter and a fourth-generation lawyer. His great-grandfather, also named Joel Page, was the Lamoille County state’s attorney from 1888 to 1890.

He was first appointed state’s attorney in 1981 by Gov. Richard Snelling to replace Joseph Wolchik, who had resigned midterm, and he had little experience on the criminal docket.

“It was basically trial by fire,” he said. “It was me, my administrative assistant and one IBM Selectric typewriter.”

Page said he enjoyed working on the juvenile cases that were fastidiously shielded from the public eye. At least a third of the cases involved juveniles, especially as the opioid epidemic ramped up over the past decade and a half.

“That got to be a little overwhelming and was one of the reasons I finally decided I probably had enough,” he said. “They are high pressure cases and they just kind of eat away at you.”

As of June 2016, Joel Page had been Lamoille County’s chief prosecutor for 32 years, and argued strongly for the wholesale renovations at the Lamoille County Courthouse in Hyde Park; the courthouse was closed for months during construction, and moved into temporary quarters at a Morrisville motel.

As an assistant judge, Page rarely conversed with his predecessors, first Paul Finnerty and now Todd Shove. In fact, Page rarely talked, period.

“The assistant judges are basically seen and not heard,” he said. “You’re basically sitting as a fact-finder when there’s contested evidence.”

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.

But Page said these days judges are far more prepared and experienced and don’t need the folksy insight into a county’s nooks and crannies. If anything, they shun such information — such and such a place is a rough joint, or so and so comes from a good family — lest it poison the well for the proceedings.

“But that’s how things were done, how judgments were made maybe going back 50 years,” Page said.

Overseeing renovation of county court house in Hyde Park. Andrew Martin photo

Side judges also help oversee the county courthouse budget, allocate money for the sheriff’s department, maintain buildings and grounds, and handle courthouse administration. One of Page’s last duties was presiding over a lawsuit filed against the Hyde Park village water department for jacking up its rates on county-operated buildings to absorb the cost of a multi-million-dollar water system upgrade.

Jan. 31 marked the last time Page would spend a workday in the brick courthouse in the middle of Hyde Park village, after being in it almost daily for over four decades. He has an affinity for the place, and he is proud to have played a key role in its years-long renovation starting in late 2015.

“It had reached a state of almost obsolescence where, if renovations were not done to make it suitable for the next century, there’s a good chance the judiciary was going to consolidate operations elsewhere,” he said. “It’s one of those buildings, a little bit like the emergency room, that nobody really wants to have to go to, but when it’s needed, it’s there.”

High profile killings
Murders are arguably the highest-profile cases facing county prosecutors, and Page had a few doozies cross his desk during his three decades in office.

There was Dennis Tribble, the Wolcott man who was convicted in two separate murder trials by jury, and had both convictions overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Another high-profile homicide case was the rape and murder of Patricia Scoville in the Moss Glen Falls area of Stowe in 1991, one that Page worked on only to a certain point — when it became apparent it was going to be “almost exclusively” a DNA case.

His first murder case came just weeks into his tenure, when the Supreme Court reversed the lower court murder conviction of Seth Camley, who had killed his wife and her lover, Clifford Manosh, the brother of the county sheriff. Luckily, the attorney general’s office had handled the underlying case and continued to be involved as Page sorted his way through a re-trial.

“I had hardly unpacked my bags before I had a high-profile murder case dropped in my lap,” he said.

For someone who relished taking cases to trial, Page is also a staunch believer in avoiding them altogether and threw his support early behind restorative justice models. He said the Lamoille Restorative Center — formerly court diversion — is a model for the rest of the state and has been from the start.

“Lamoille County was the perfect testing ground for experimenting with innovative restorative options,” he said.

That’s not only because of the rural nature of the area, where perpetrators of low-level crimes and the people affected by them are separated by very few degrees of separation. Page said in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the county “had a strong legislative presence, stronger than the size of the county would indicate.”

He said law enforcement brass were also on board early with restorative models, and even if they didn’t advocate for letting all alleged perpetrators off the hook, they did see the model as “a tool they could use to work with the parents of kids that were causing problems.”

“It’s very simplistic thinking, the old model of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ and ‘an eye for an eye.’ Some of these old expressions have a real basis in our culture,” he said.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Joel Page is the big brother (one of three) to Vermont Daily Chronicle Publisher Guy Page, who also is a former reporter for the News & Citizen.

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