Maine court system not alone in doing more with less

Posted June 08, 2011, at 7:43 p.m.
Last modified June 09, 2011, at 9:15 a.m.

The Maine court system is no longer alone in its struggle to deliver equal justice for less. At least 28 other states are having to reduce their hours, cut staff, increase caseloads for judges and delay civil matters to deal with child protective and criminal cases, according to the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

The Maine court system — funded at the lowest per-capita level of any in the nation — is not facing the severe budget cuts other states are, according to information being gathered by the American Bar Association.

For example, the New Hampshire judicial system has cut its staff by 13 percent through layoffs and retirements, affecting 73 people. The reductions came as the court system works to address a $3.2 million budget shortfall, according to the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader. New York courts have been hit with a $170 million budget cut, according to the ABA.

In Georgia, courts are closing their doors sporadically, as Maine has in rural areas. In addition, court personnel in the Southern states are seeking donations of pens and pencils, according to a recent USA Today article. Jurors in Alabama are being asked to serve without compensation, while Mainers earn $10 per day to fulfill their civic duty to serve on a jury.

“There’s no room to cut unless we want to cut our fundamental liberties and democracy,” ABA President Stephen Zack said in announcing the formation of the Task Force on the Preservation of Justice.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, along with chief justices from states in the Northeast, testified last month before the task force at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord.

“All the other courts systems [represented at the hearing] start substantially above where we are now,” she said last week. “After I spoke, one panel member described Maine’s court system as ‘Dickensian.’”

Saufley said that jurists from other states were most surprised to learn that Maine does not have full-time entry screening in all its courthouses. Despite budget troubles, other states have not cut back on entry-screening in order to protect the public and judicial employees, she said.

Gov. Paul LePage included in his proposed budget an increase that would allow entry screening to increase for 20 to 25 percent of the time courthouses are open. That figure does not include the full-time entry screening at the Penobscot Judicial Center, she said.

The governor’s budget of $51.8 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes funding to fill the open clerk and security positions that have been vacant for several years. That is the same amount the court system requested from former Gov. John Baldacci, Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the judiciary, said in March after Saufley spoke to the Legislature. Baldacci, however, included just over $49 million in his budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Saufley’s testimony before the task force was similar to her annual “State of Judiciary” address to the Legislature. She included a couple of problems not as familiar to the public as are courthouse security, staffing shortages and delays.

“One of the oddest but increasingly alarming problems is the issue of records storage,” she said. “Since all records are still on paper, and we do not have the resources for appropriate storage facilities, the boxes and boxes of files pile up in clerks’ offices, in hallways, in chambers, and overflowing storage rooms, creating fire hazards and serious traffic difficulties in our courthouses.”

Technology is another area in which Maine courts are lagging behind other states significantly, she said. In some rural courthouses, reliable Internet access continues to be an occasional but irritating problem. A study is expected to be completed over the next year that would outline how much it would cost for the courts to convert to a paperless system.

The ABA task force, according to Saufley, is crisscrossing the country “to figure out what is happening to the justice system on the ground, then issue a report and offer solutions.”

“During the difficult financial times of the past few years,” she said, “some other states have treated justice as a program. All we have to do is look around the world to know that when justice fails, democracy fails.”

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