Chief justice urges legislators to OK funds for entry screening, study on cost of digital conversion
AUGUSTA, Maine — Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, on Thursday urged lawmakers to fund increased security at the state’s 38 courthouses and a study to determine how much it will cost to convert from paper court records to an electronic system in her annual address to the Legislature.
When she was named chief justice in 2001, entry screening at courthouses was not routine, Saufley told the joint session of the Senate and House.
“Maine was among the last states in the nation to recognize the serious threat to safety in court buildings where guns and other weapons were not screened out,” she said. “Thanks to the support of the Legislature and the governor over the last two fiscal years, we have now reached the point where entry screening is done approximately 50 percent of the time, up from 20 percent two years ago.”
Gov. Paul LePage included an additional $1 million for entry screening in his proposed biennial budget, according to a previously published report.
That will allow entry screening 70 percent of the time, Saufley said Thursday.
The Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor is the only courthouse in the state where entry screening takes place every day it is open, according to a previously published report.
The chief justice asked legislators Thursday to fund a $350,000 study that was not included in LePage’s proposed budget to pay a consultant to develop a request for proposals for a new case management system that would allow for electronic filing. Maine is one of the few states in the country whose court documents still are almost entirely on paper.
“In a world where records and communications are now routinely in digital format, our paper-based records are frankly out of step, and this affects public safety, public access, the costs of litigation, and the availability of important data,” Saufley said.
“In short, this challenge affects every aspect of justice,” she continued. “I have presented technological proposals to you in the past, but today I am here to tell you that the need to move paper court records into the digital era is no longer a luxury.”
Saufley said people who regularly use the courts, such as lawyers, aren’t the only group asking for faster and easier access to court documents.
“One of the biggest complaints we receive each year relates to record checks for job applicants,” Saufley said. “We have been told by some of the large employers’ organizations that Maine courts are one of the slowest courts in the nation to respond to those inquiries. This puts Maine employees at a serious disadvantage and slows down the pursuit of jobs and return to financial stability.”
The chief justice also said that implementing an electronic system would cost millions of dollars.
New Hampshire’s court system is in the process of converting to an electronic case filing system at a cost estimated between $10.4 million and $12.4 million, according to a report submitted last year to the Legislature’s Appropriations and Judiciary committees.
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said after her speech that Saufley’s top priorities — increased security and digitalization — were appropriate.
“I have always appreciated how she explains what [the court system] needs in a respectful but direct manner,” he said after Saufley’s address. “She’s been very patient with the fact that we have had limited funds for several years. She has done more with less.”
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, was effusive in her praise of Saufley after the chief justice’s speech.
“I think Justice Saufley is such a fabulous woman,” Craven said. “I am so proud that Maine has a woman chief justice. She’s done a fabulous job during her tenure. Her speech was measured today and her requests were measured.”
Both senators said they will support funding for additional court security and the study on digitalization of court records.
The chief justice also said domestic violence is a priority for the court system as it is for the governor.
Efforts over the last year included having bail on felony domestic violence charges set by judges rather than bail commissioners and putting online a statewide arrest warrant repository that provides law enforcement with instant access to arrest warrants, Saufley told lawmakers.
The next initiative around the issue will allow law enforcement officers to access protection from abuse orders on the computers in their cruisers, Saufley said. That will allow the documents to be served immediately on alleged offenders.
The chief justice also said the court system does not cost taxpayers a great deal of money.
“The Maine judicial branch consumes less than two cents of every dollar of the general fund,” Saufley said. “In fiscal year 2012 the statewide judicial branch, which includes 38 courthouses and a total of 491 people, provided a solid system of justice for less than $54 million — that’s just 1.7 percent of the state budget.”
That $54 million did include the $10 million the judiciary paid for debt service for construction of new courthouses in Dover-Foxcroft and Augusta in the last fiscal year.
The chief justice also announced Thursday that in October the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will convene at high schools in Orono, Newport and Cape Elizabeth.