Chief justice outlines new court proposals

Posted Jan. 29, 2009, at 9:09 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Three proposals that the Legislature will consider this session would improve the delivery of justice in Maine, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley told 150 or so lawyers gathered Thursday for the annual meeting of the Maine State Bar Association.

One would create a commission for indigent legal defense that would oversee attorneys who represent defendants who qualify for a free lawyer in criminal cases. Another would fund new court facilities and-or renovations to existing courthouse facilities in Kennebec, Piscataquis and Washington counties. The third would fund a bond to upgrade court technology around the state.

The price tag of all three would total about $95 million, according to information provided by Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system. Between $10 million and $12 million, however, would not be new funding but would be transferred from the Judiciary’s budget for indigent defense to the commission, if the proposed panel were approved.

The state is constitutionally required to provide legal service to defendants facing jail time as well as parents and children in parental rights cases, the chief justice said. Most states fund indigent legal defense through an independent body rather than the judiciary. As an example, she said, Maine judges now must approve the bills presented by attorneys who represent indigent defendants in criminal cases, but judges have no say on the cost of prosecution.

“That is not really fair,” Saufley said.

The bulk of the money in the trio of proposals would go for construction and most likely would require a bond issue as did the new courthouse in Bangor. A new court facility in Kennebec County would cost about $60 million, Lynch said, with the Washington County renovations costing about $12 million. The $5 million worth of improvements to the Piscataquis County Courthouse were approved in the last legislative session, but funds for the project were not appropriated because of the budget crisis.

The final proposal would allow the court system to borrow between $7 million and $9 million to go from an almost totally paper system to one that is more modern and secure, the chief justice said. In addition, the money would be used to upgrade courtrooms so that more video- and audioconferencing could be done.

Saufley also gave lawyers a brief preview of her annual State of the Judiciary speech before the Legislature. A date for her address has not yet been scheduled. The judiciary budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2010, which will be recommended in Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed budget, is $69.3 million and slightly less for the next year, she said. After the supplemental budget was approved this week, the judiciary budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 is $63.4 million.

As she has in years past, Saufley urged members of the Maine bar to become advocates for the court system. “Stay informed,” she told the attorneys, “talk to legislators, and be stewards of justice.”

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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