AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s chief justice described the state’s court system as “precarious” in her annual address to a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday.
Leigh I. Saufley told lawmakers that the next two years would be difficult but that she, like Gov. John Baldacci, who delivered his State of the State address on March 10, was hopeful that “with vigilance and creativity” the delivery of justice would not be severely affected by the troubled economy.
“How then, in economically devastating times, do we assure the continued viability of justice in Maine?” Saufley asked. “We must look ahead to better times, and we must have the roadmap toward prosperity in mind. We must be clear-eyed, however, about the current challenges.”
She outlined the principles that will be used to guide the court system through “these very challenging times”:
— Priority cases involving children and families, violence or sexual assault and victims of crimes will continue to be scheduled first.
— No courthouses will be closed, although hours that clerks’ offices are open may continue to be curtailed.
— Innovations that improve efficiencies, such as combining District and Superior court clerks’ offices in some locations around the state and upgrading technology to streamline delivery of justice will be critical to the court system’s future.
The chief justice also outlined two new task forces designed to keep people from needing to use the court system. One would create a foreclosure diversion program and the other would help troubled juveniles avoid the justice system.
Saufley announced Tuesday that the judiciary would work with the independent Justice Action Group, Maine banks, attorneys and legislators to create a foreclosure diversion program aimed at helping people who are facing the loss of their homes.
Supreme Court Justice Jon D. Levy is heading the task force. He said at a press conference after Saufley’s address that the goal was to create a program that could help homeowners avoid foreclosure and lengthy and expensive court proceedings with early intervention.
Another goal, he said, would be to set up a dispute resolution team that would allow homeowners and mortgage holders to go to mediation rather than before a judge. Levy said that a similar program had been very successful in Philadelphia but added that the task force would work out the details.
“The Juvenile Justice Task Force will help us develop a coordinated process to identify youth and families in the beginning stages of distress,” Saufley said in her speech about the second initiative. “It should not matter whether the first identification of problems is by a school, the Department of Health and Human Services, the police, the courts, or other community entities; the response should be consistent, swift and effective.”
Saufley said the goal of the program would be to help at-risk youth stay in school and earn their high school diplomas. She said that, nationally, 68 percent of the prison population never finished high school.
This year, the chief justice did not present budget numbers and statistics as she has in previous years. Instead, Saufley used broad strokes to paint the big picture for legislators and urged them to look out for the future of the court system rather than focusing on the present budgetary constraints. She also asked lawmakers to support specific legislation.
“Given the current general fund deficit, and the prospect of further reductions, how can you help us make sure that, when your constituents need help from the courts, there is a courthouse near them; there is a clerk who will answer the phone; there is a judge who can hear their case; and a marshal to keep them safe?” she said at the conclusion of her remarks.
Saufley asked lawmakers to support the judiciary’s budget as proposed and not make further cuts. She also asked for support of a bill that would allow for courthouse renovations and-or construction in Augusta, Machias and Dover-Foxcroft. In addition, she urged legislators to vote for a proposal that would create a commission to oversee indigent legal services and a plan to seek grant money to upgrade the judicial systems computer technology.
“I thought it was an excellent speech,” Baldacci said of Saufley’s address. “The chief justice set the right tone and injected good humor and wit into her remarks.
“We have a lot of work to do on the budget, on indigent defense and in other significant areas, but I’m certain that we can work together to find solutions that are good for Maine,” he said.