AUGUSTA, Maine — Saying state courts already are understaffed and underfunded, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley says the courts can identify only $85,000 in savings out of a target of nearly $494,000 in cuts for the remainder of this budget year.
“All we have are courthouses and people, we don’t have any programs to cut,” Saufley said in an interview. “We are already keeping 35 positions vacant, and there are impacts on justice from what we are doing now.”
The courts sent a formal response to state budget officials after Gov. John Baldacci ordered agencies to propose ways to meet a possible $23 million budget curtailment. The target originally was $100 million, but Congress provided $77 million in extra Medicaid funds.
“We recognize the financial problems; we have been living with them for years,” Saufley said.
She said the courts have identified at least $85,500 in savings. Those include keeping a Superior Court justice position vacant until January and not naming replacements for two magistrates recently confirmed as judges.
Saufley said that for several years the court system has been taking steps to reduce costs and improve efficiency. The remaining options would close courts, lay off staff or increase the number of unfilled positions. She is not recommending any of those because the courts already are struggling to meet their mandate to provide access to justice throughout the state, she said.
“One of my big concerns is whenever you get that very challenging dynamic, you start to get mistakes,” she said. “And those mistakes have a real impact on real people’s lives.”
Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, the GOP senator of the Judiciary Committee, agrees. He said he is aware of several incidents where documents filed with clerks did not get to the judge in a timely manner.
“I personally know of one that dealt with a foreclosure proceeding where the bank got a summary judgment because the objections never got into the file,” he said. “I think we are facing a very serious problem here.”
Hastings said he also brought up the issue during judicial confirmation hearings last month because he believes the courts have done all they can to reduce costs and the vacancies are now having an impact on access to the courts.
“We can’t have a cut in rural courthouses,” he said. “First it doesn’t save much — $50,000 here or $100,000 there — and all it will do is shift the cases to other courts. It doesn’t save anything and makes it harder for people to access the courts.”
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, is the House co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and shares the concern that access to justice is being reduced as a result of budget cuts. But she said the state has to stay within its revenues.
“I appreciate the chief justice spelling out what these cuts will mean,” she said. “We are facing ongoing budget problems and they are going to continue into the next Legislature.”
Cain said she hopes the governor does not have to use his curtailment authority to reduce spending. But, she acknowledged state revenues continue to fluctuate, below estimates in July and above estimates in August.
She said that even if the governor curtails spending, it would be up to the new Legislature and governor to consider whether those cuts should continue as lawmakers consider an emergency spending plan for the rest of this budget year.
In a letter to budget officials, State Court Administrator James Glessner detailed the current cost-cutting efforts of the court system. He wrote that nearly 10 percent of the nonjudge positions are being kept vacant even though they are needed.
In addition, the public service windows at courthouse are open less often, court security screeners do not work all the time, and the courts have improved the way criminal cases are handled.
“We are also seeing a major increase in the number of people that are in District Court without legal representation,” Saufley said. “That puts a strain on court staff and judges to help them.”
She said business disputes, from landlord tenant actions to small claims matters, are all taking longer to handle because the courts have to set priorities on cases, and criminal cases and family matters have to be handled before business disputes.
Further reductions, Saufley said, will mean an even longer wait for the courts to resolve nonpriority cases.