AUGUSTA, Maine — The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said Thursday that the court system would work with the governor and lawmakers to curb domestic violence in Maine.
In her annual State of the Judiciary address, Leigh I. Saufley announced that, effective immediately, bail commissioners may not set bail in domestic violence-related cases unless they have access to the defendant’s criminal history in Maine.
“We know that one of the most important tools in averting repeated violence is for judicial officers to have the criminal history records of the person charged with domestic violence,” she said. “Without that history, informed decisions cannot be made.”
Bail commissioners sometimes don’t have that information because of varying legal interpretations, technological limitations, law enforcement staffing limitations and miscommunication, according to Saufley.
“But frankly, it doesn’t matter why bail commissioners don’t have the records,” she said. “By law, you have mandated policies by which criminal history records will be relayed to the bail commissioners. To make well-informed decisions, they must have the information. Too often, they are not receiving the reports. That is simply not acceptable.”
If a bail commissioner does not have a defendant’s criminal history, the defendant will have to remain in jail and appear before a judge within 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, Saufley said at a press conference after her speech.
Gov. Paul LePage, who has made eradicating domestic violence a priority for his administration, praised her action in a press release issued Thursday afternoon.
“I applaud Chief Justice Saufley for taking a proactive step which will ensure the safety of the public,” he said. “Any type of violence against a person is a threat to their well-being and we know domestic violence can be particularly harmful and escalate quickly for those who are in relationships. I commend the leadership of the chief justice for this renewed focus on domestic violence and implementation of meaningful change which will benefit many Mainers.”
In a statement issued after the address, House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, also expressed support for Saufley’s desire to curb domestic violence.
“I look forward to working with the Chief Justice to strengthen … protections for victims of domestic violence,” said Cain, who has introduced emergency legislation to prevent domestic violence this year in response to the tragic event in Dexter last June in which Steven Lake murdered his wife, Amy Lake, and the couple’s two children before turning the gun on himself.
“The Dexter tragedy rightfully put our entire system under a microscope,” Cain said. “We know that we must work together [to] do more to protect victims and prevent harm.”
The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hold public hearings Monday on Cain’s bill and other bills concerning domestic violence.
“I am deeply concerned that the likely effect here is that people merely accused of crimes are going to be held without any bail whatsoever,” Walter McKee of Augusta said in an email. “That’s flatly unfair, unconstitutional and disappointing. The overwhelming majority of those arrested are going to be held while waiting for information that will have zero impact on any bail issue.”
The president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also expressed concern about Saufley’s directive.
“Holding an accused on a crime that is bailable as a matter of right until criminal history information is received is not a novel concept — the problem is that technical limitations on the sharing of this type of information between law enforcement and bail commissioners results in justice being denied and constitutional rights being violated,” Sarah Churchill of Portland said Thursday in an email.
“What the Chief Justice has proposed can be done without violating the rights of the accused if changes are made to how information is shared,” she continued. “I have concerns about how quickly those types of changes can be made and how the potential violations of constitutional rights of the accused are going to be handled in this interim period of time.”
Saufley did say that the rights of the accused guaranteed by the Maine and U.S. constitutions must be preserved and enforced.
“To be clear, in our efforts to eradicate domestic violence, we must not allow a rush to judgment to sweep in the innocent,” she told lawmakers.
“We must preserve and enforce the rights guaranteed by the Maine and federal constitutions. And we must carefully balance the rights of the accused against public safety and protection for victims.”
Saufley also said that the court system should be involved in finding solutions to domestic violence.
“While the courts are neutral fact-finders, courts are not neutral on the fact of, or the solutions for, domestic violence,” she said. “Chief justices across the country are looking for ways to better identify the potentially lethal cases.”
Saufley suggested using principles outlined by the national Conference of Chief Justices as a guide in crafting legislation and implementing changes to the court system. They are:
• Families in crisis must be able to easily access courts.
• Judges must have comprehensive information on prior court orders and any history of violence in the family.
• Convicted abusers must be held accountable.
• Judges can be catalysts to enhance intergovernmental collaboration for improvement.
New initiatives in 2012 that Saufley announced Thursday include audio web streaming of oral arguments in appeals to the state supreme court and a pilot program that would direct phone calls from people in Androscoggin County from the clerks’ offices in Lewiston and Auburn to three court employees who would answer questions, help them find information and more easily negotiate the court system. This would free up clerks to work on cases already filed with fewer interruptions, she said.
In addition, Saufley praised lawmakers Thursday for restoring baseline funding of $55 million a year to the courts after a series of cuts in the previous administration left 60 clerk and security jobs vacant because of a hiring freeze.
As of July 1, 2011, the start of the fiscal year, those positions were filled, allowing for an increase in entry screening and efficiency in clerks’ offices around the state, she said.
Sen. David R. Hastings III, R-Fryeburg, who is chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and an attorney, said after the speech that funding the court system’s baseline budget “has been crucial in providing access to justice, especially in rural area.”
To view the Maine Judicial Branch 2011 Annual Report, click here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.