Imagine the courthouse doors slamming shut. If current budget goals are imposed on the court system, a number of courthouses around the state may be closed for good. At those courthouses that survive, shortages of clerks and other staff will reduce the ability to resolve the variety of cases we expect courts to decide in the pursuit of justice.
The court system has been subject to numerous rounds of budget-cutting over the past decade. Maine’s judicial budget — just 2 percent of the entire state budget without inclusion of indigent defense costs — has traditionally ranked at or near the bottom of all states in per capita funding.
The budget cycle for fiscal year 2009 has been especially severe. Faced with a $190 million deficit in the general fund budget, the Maine judiciary was initially asked to cut its budget by $4.8 million. The judiciary was able to avoid the full brunt of this request by implementing new fees on dispositive motions that were projected to raise an additional $1 million in revenue. At the end of the day, the judiciary cut its budget by $1.1 million for FY 2009 — and was required to pay $1.9 million for cost overruns for court-appointed counsel, resulting in a $3 million reduction for court operations.
As a result, the court system has left judicial and staff vacancies unfilled; it has terminated almost half of all court reporters; it has eliminated travel reimbursement for judges; it has reduced funding for the services of active retired justices; and it has reduced court operations. At the same time, the capacity of the business court has been reduced by half, and the judicial branch continues to defer security enhancements. And jurors continue to be reimbursed at the embarrassing rate of $10 per day.
Budget projections for the 2009–11 biennium are even more bleak. Requests have already been made for further across-the-board budget cuts of about 4 percent. The governor’s call for a reduction in income taxes portends even further spending reductions. And on Sept. 24, the governor told state department heads, including the judiciary, to look for ways to cut their budgets by an additional 10 percent because budget requests total $654 million more than the state can afford. His commissioner of administrative and financial services asked for the lower proposals to be submitted by Oct. 10.
But civil justice as we know it in Maine will be drastically altered unless the governor and the Legislature provide more funding — not less — to their co-equal branch of government. The two major components of the judicial budget are courthouse operations and staff. Further cuts, or even flat funding in a period of inflation, will require the courts to close buildings, reduce staff and curtail civil services. Three or four courthouses are already targeted for closure unless the court system receives additional funding above 2009 levels. We may be faced with a beltway court system along the I-95 corridor if courts in rural areas of the state must be closed.
I urge you to consider the broader impact of an inadequate budget on the broader system of justice:
• Some activities currently regarded as criminal conduct might not get prosecuted;
• Defendants on bail may be at liberty for longer periods of time;
• Victims of abuse may not get protective orders on time;
• Child protective matters may be delayed;
• Divorces will take longer;
• Injured parties may have to go longer without payment of their medical bills and may face the consequences of an ongoing loss of income which will further pressure social service systems in the state; and
• Plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases will have matters pending for much longer stretches of time.
What can you do to help?
Please tell your legislative candidates that you are concerned about the need for full and adequate funding for the court system. Please tell them that Maine must fund justice. If you have recently been involved in any litigation, tell legislative candidates about your experience with the court system. Tell them how any further budget cutting will intolerably delay the resolution of very important legal disputes.
Let the candidates know that justice delayed is justice denied, and that they need to assure you they will work for proper funding of Maine’s court system. Without it, we all face the steep erosion of our system of justice.
Brett D. Baber practices law in Bangor and is president of the Maine State Bar Association.