NEWPORT, Maine — Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court went to “ground zero” of the court system Tuesday afternoon when she toured 3rd District Court on Water Street.
Rep. Joshua Tardy, R-Newport, who also is a local lawyer, and Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, talked with Saufley about the challenges facing rural court facilities.
“The chief justice is tasked with the responsibility of taking care of the physical court facilities,” Tardy said. “By getting the perspective of local attorneys and the court clerks, she’s being responsible and doing her due diligence. This is the ground zero perspective.”
Saufley said now that decisions have been made about improving conditions in some of the state’s neediest Superior Courthouses, it was time she turned her attention to the District Courthouses around the state.
The chief justice cited the nearly completed Penobscot County Judicial Center and the planned renovations to courthouses in Piscataquis, Washington and Kennebec counties as examples of improvements to Superior Court facilities.
“This courthouse is in pretty good shape,” Saufley said of the Newport building. “It just needs some upgrades.”
It needs more storage space and a couple of smaller rooms that could be used for conferences and mediation, she said after speaking with staff members, Tardy and Plowman.
Tardy was part of a commission created last year to consider the consolidation of court facilities. To assure access to justice in rural areas of the state, the group strongly decided not to recommend closing courthouses.
Tardy said Tuesday that in spite of the consolidation of the clerks’ offices of the District Court in Bangor and the Superior Court in the new Penobscot County Judicial Center, slated to open in November, the decision not to consolidate District Court in Newport with Bangor, which is about 30 miles north on Interstate 95, was a sound one.
“People prefer having their courthouse within 10 or 25 miles of their residences,” he said, “the same way they want their schools close by. Consolidation is a trendy word in tough economic times, but once a courthouse is closed, it’s not going to be reopened. It’s not about arguing for more, it’s about protecting what we have.”
Saufley also said that although the District Court in Newport has handled the same number of cases — about 2,500 annually — over the past five years, the “mix of those cases has shifted.” The court is handling more family matters, including child protective cases, small claims and business cases than it has in the past.
Another problem Saufley noticed in Newport was security. Just inside the courthouse entrance is a metal detector through which everyone coming inside must pass. On Tuesday, it was not plugged in because there is no outlet close enough to the door.
“It can be kind of scary when you come to court for the first time,” Plowman said. “It’s close quarters out there [in the waiting area]. People are in the same room with people they might be afraid of, and people who are adversaries are in very close contact. But I’m always amazed at how well it flows.”
Plowman, whose district includes Newport, said she accompanied her best friend to the courthouse several years ago when the woman divorced her abusive husband. Having to be in the same room with her abuser was terrifying for her friend, the senator said, even though court security was helpful.
Saufley’s stop in Newport was part of a tour of courthouses that included stops in Calais and Machias on Monday and at the Penobscot Tribal Court on Indian Island on Tuesday. She will visit courthouses in Somerset and Kennebec counties next week.
“The state courts have a lot to learn from the tribal courts,” Saufley said during her tour Tuesday morning on Indian Island, “not just in how you adjudicate cases, but in how you process them.”
Matthew Erickson of Brewer has been working the past few months as the prosecutor for the Penobscot Nation. He said Tuesday that the difference between the Tribal Court and District Court is the caseload.
“Here there are so many fewer cases that the judge can spend two hours on a failure-to-stop charge and then issue a thoughtful written opinion,” said Erickson, who also handles cases in state and federal court. “That makes people feel like they have been heard — and a lot of times, whether people feel they have gotten justice depends on whether they feel that they’ve been heard.”