State judiciary spared further budget cuts

Posted Dec. 16, 2008, at 9:24 p.m.

Editor’s note: This is a corrected version of the story that ran in the Dec. 17 print edition of the Bangor Daily News.

BANGOR, Maine — The Maine judiciary has been spared cuts in the supplemental budget announced Tuesday by Gov. John Baldacci.

“We are very grateful to the governor for not cutting funding for the judicial branch,” said Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the judiciary. “He asked us to cut the budget by $3.1 million. We said, ‘We can’t.’ We’re grateful he recognized that.”

The judiciary budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 is $63.4 million.

The governor’s supplemental budget included a small funding increase of $7,900 to help fund a position in the drug court program, Lynch said. That money will come from the tobacco settlement money the state receives each year.

The governor turned down the judiciary’s request for $690,000 in additional funds, she said.

The impact of a statewide hiring freeze will continue to affect the courts around the state, according to Lynch. The Portland court clerk’s office has a 28 percent vacancy rate because of the hiring freeze. As a result, the number of Superior Court days around the state has been cut and cases have been delayed in district courts, Lynch said.

There are 50 clerk positions now vacant and all of them are in courts south of Augusta, James “Ted” Glessner, administrator for the courts, said in late October, so the impact is not being felt statewide.

The Indigent Legal Defense Fund, which pays for attorneys for indigent defendants in criminal cases, has been over budget every year for the past several budget cycles, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said earlier this year. The fund is a line item in the judiciary budget that is very difficult to project, she told the Legislature in her annual address.

This year, the fund is expected to be $1.5 million over budget, Lynch said Tuesday. That gap is being filled by money saved when positions are left empty.

Because the fund is part of the court system’s budget, the judiciary essentially operates at a deficit all the time, according to lawyer Robert Ruffner, founder of the Maine Indigent Defense Center in Portland.

“The governor said to the judiciary, ‘Eat it,’” Ruffner said of the deficit in the indigent defense fund.

Ruffner’s organization has advocated creating a separate fund outside the judiciary to pay for indigent defense.

The Indigent Legal Service Commission, a 30-member panel, is expected to issue a report recommending changes to the current funding system before the end of the year.

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