PORTLAND, Maine — The head of the Shipyard Brewing Co. thinks Maine’s court system needs a Judge Judy to resolve business cases more quickly.
Fred Forsley, president of the Portland-based firm that also owns the Sea Dog Brewing Co. on Bangor’s waterfront, told a forum at the University of Southern Maine on Monday that he knew from personal experience how an economic development project could get stopped in its tracks and held up for five years by a lawsuit.
“There’s no access to a quick resolution of disputes for small businesses,” he said in suggesting that Judge Judy, an irascible New Yorker who makes decisions in small-claims disputes on her own syndicated television show, was needed in Maine. “Family cases are resolved in six months to a year, but in six months a small business could run out of money and go out of business waiting for a resolution.”
Forsley was part of a panel discussion on “The Economy, the Courts and the Way Forward: Maine’s Court System in 2014,” sponsored by the University of Maine School of Law and the Maine Trial Lawyers Association. The “Law Review,” produced by the state’s only law school in Portland, will publish follow-up articles on the discussion later this spring.
Other panelists were Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, Maine Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, House Republican leader Joshua Tardy, Attorney General Janet Mills and Commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic Development John Richardson.
Gov. John Baldacci also attended and gave introductory remarks about his twin economic development pillars for the state — expanded broadband access and renewable energy. About 200 people from the law school, the judiciary and the Portland legal community attended the two-hour forum.
Forsley urged the judiciary to expand its Business and Consumer Court that was created two years ago. Its caseload has been decreased recently because of the budget crisis. The state’s largest brewer also urged judges appointed to a business court to have a good knowledge of and-or background in business law.
Saufley did not respond directly to his call for a Judge Judy-type to handle business cases that involve less than about $50,000. The chief justice did, according to moderator Peter Pitegoff, who is dean of the law school, react negatively to having that particular judge sitting in a Maine courtroom.
Richardson, a former speaker of the House, admitted that the Legislature had not adequately funded the judiciary for years. One of the areas that needs immediate attention, he said, is an upgrade in the court’s computer system to allow for online filing and access to dockets. Such a system has been available in the federal courts for more than five years.
“We all bear some responsibility for the lack of funding,” he said. “We’ve got to spend some money now so the judiciary can save some money with the efficiencies that could come with computerization in the future.”
Earlier this month, the courts took a small step toward meeting that goal by implementing a pilot project that allows defendants to pay their court fines online. It is now available for convictions out of District Courts in Bangor, Biddeford and Springvale and Penobscot County Superior Court in Bangor.
So far fewer than 50 people have taken advantage of the program, according to Deborah Carson, director of court finances. The courts are using the same provider for the new service that allows people to pay traffic tickets and other civil fines online.
Carson said that the $6 service fee to pay online may be one reason so few defendants have chosen to use the system. Another may be that it has received little publicity. People are given a slip explaining the new program when they come to court to pay their fines.
“We are implementing it slowly,” she said last week, “so that we work out all the bugs. We don’t want to issue a warrant for nonpayment of fines when someone has paid online.”
Saufley said at Monday’s forum that the judiciary would be applying for a $2.5 million federal grant to build the computer platform that would allow for e-filing and more online access to information about criminal cases. She said the goal was to have a system that could enable access by law enforcement, probation officers, judges, court clerks, attorneys and the public.