AUGUSTA, Maine — Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told lawmakers in her annual State of the Judiciary address that the condition of Maine’s courts continues to be “precarious,” with budget cuts affecting case backlogs and court safety.
“Last year, I told you that the state of the judiciary was precarious,” she said. “Today, the state of the Maine judiciary remains precarious.”
Saufley told lawmakers she had bad news and some good news this year. The bad news continues to be a lack of security resources for the courts. At best, she said, there is staff to cover one in four days when a courthouse is used throughout the state. She said that because of budget cuts, the courts are keeping positions unfilled to fund security.
“We must improve our capacity to stop weapons at the doors of Maine’s courthouses,” she said. “The vacancies we must carry present a serious barrier to improving security.”
At a news conference after her speech to the Legislature, she said the number of attempts to bring guns into courthouses appears to have declined, but she said the number and types of other weapons being seized at courthouses is very troubling.
“Some terrible knives, machetes, very scary implements are still taken from people at courthouse doors,” Saufley said. “And when there is no entry screening, we don’t know what’s coming into the courthouses.”
She said the courts had 292,000 new cases filed in budget year 2009. The increases are primarily in civil cases such as mental health commitments, mortgage foreclosures, small claims and traffic infractions.
“We are seeing an increase in backlogs despite our efforts at consolidation of clerk’s offices and streamlining some of our processes,” Saufley said.
For example, she said, cases on the Business and Consumer docket have an average delay of seven months, but those civil disputes that do not make it on that docket can take far longer to be resolved by the courts.
She said the good news is that several federal grants that add up to more than $2 million will allow the courts to move into computerization of the entire court system, both criminal and civil. She said it would mean a far more transparent court system than exists today.
“The public will find that all of the appropriate public information regarding charges, crimes, convictions is available electronically, like with the federal system,” Saufley told reporters.
The speech was well-received by lawmakers, even though they are concerned about both the safety of the courts and the backlog of cases. Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, the Senate majority leader, is an attorney and said lawyers are very concerned about security issues and the caseload backlogs.
“She has done an extraordinary job of reshuffling things and making the courts as efficient as possible,” he said. “One of my concerns is that we were really making significant improvements in making the courts more business-friendly, and that is compromised when you have the staff shortages they have.”
Bartlett said the technology improvements would help with caseloads by moving from paper to electronic filings, even though those improvements are years away.
Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the GOP floor leader, praised Saufley for recognizing that all of state government is hurting in the recession and taking steps to set priorities within the judicial branch.
“She has done an excellent job in balancing all of the demands on the courts,” he said. “But it is clear the courts are not getting all of the resources they need.”
He said he shares the concern that not enough is being done to improve court security, but said there are not additional resources for the courts as the state cuts $438 million in spending to bring the budget into balance.
Sen. Lawrence Bliss, D-South Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he is very worried about the security problems facing the courts.
“I applaud the efforts the Judiciary is making to improve security in these difficult times, but much more needs to be done,” he said in a statement. “We must work together to improve security and shorten the long waiting times people now have to go through as they seek justice.”
Saufley told members of the Judiciary Committee earlier this month that any additional appropriations would certainly help, but she does not expect that to happen given the state’s revenue shortfall.