AUGUSTA, Maine — The state of the judiciary is better, in part because prospects look good that its funding needs will be met this year, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley told a joint session of the Legislature in her 10th address to lawmakers on Thursday.

Last year and in 2009, Saufley described the court system’s situation as “precarious.”

This year, she urged legislators to support Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, which includes $2.8 million to fill 35 vacant positions. Nearly two-thirds of those vacancies are for court clerks and five or six are for judicial marshals, who provide security at the 39 courthouses around the state, Saufley said at a press conference after her 30-minute address.

That $2.8 million is not new money, Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system, said after the address. For the past three years, the judiciary has asked the governor for $51.8 million. LePage, who attended Thursday’s address, included that sum in his proposed budget.

Former Gov. John Baldacci’s budgets cut $1 million from the judiciary’s request for each of the past two fiscal years, Lynch said. If the Legislature approves LePage’s recommendation for the court system, new employees could be in place by July 1.

“Unfortunately, the challenges of understaffing have taken their toll on the public,” Saufley told lawmakers. “The bottom line is that the limited number of staff and judges simply cannot do all of the work that is generated. With only 53 trial judges across the state, and with 150,000 new cases pouring into the courts each year, the strain is real.

“That’s 600 new cases every court day, and that doesn’t include 130,000 traffic infractions. We have to set priorities, slow the response to nonpriority cases, and even reduce access at certain times. For example, public hours are currently reduced in clerk’s offices in Rumford, Millinocket and South Paris.”

In her address, Saufley described the changes to Maine’s judicial system over the past decade and laid out a blueprint for the decade ahead.

Civil cases have been on the rise in Maine courts, increasing 48 percent in the past five years, she said. That number includes a 146 percent surge in mortgage foreclosures and a 56 percent increase in debt collection cases.

At the same time, Saufley said criminal filings have fallen about 20 percent. She said criminal cases used to make up 50 percent of the court’s nontraffic caseload, but now represent about 44 percent.

Divorces and family matters, she said, have held steady over the past five years, but the complexity of the cases has required more court time to resolve. Protection from abuse cases also have remained steady at just over 6,000 per year.

Goals for the next decade, Saufley said, include:

  1. Consolidating courthouses.
  2. Decreasing the amount of time it takes for cases to be resolved.
  3. Continuing to support efforts to improve access to justice.
  4. Providing electronic information systems, including electronic filing.

Saufley also told lawmakers that Superior Court Chief Justice Thomas Humphrey of Portland is working to rejuvenate the Business and Consumer Docket, which was created to handle complex litigation involving businesses.

“Three years ago, [it] got off to a great start,” she said. “Some of the most complex business cases in the system were being resolved in nine or 10 months. The benefit to businesses of prompt, predictable justice cannot be overstated. Delays and uncertainty do not support a solid business climate. The Business [and Consumer] Docket was designed to avoid those problems, and it did so very well in its first full year.”

Staffing shortages over the past year “devastated” that progress, but moving resources from other areas and help from LePage’s proposed budget would allow the docket to be on “solid footing” in six months, she said.

Reaction to Saufley’s address was supportive from both sides of the aisle.

“I’m impressed with her commitment to rural justice,” said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. “She has said in the past that tough budget times cannot be an excuse to diminish justice in rural Maine, and we heard that again today.”

Two years ago, Saufley agreed not to close small district courts around the state to save money due to the budget crisis.

“What she provided for us today is the reality of the situation, and it faces all three branches of government,” said Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Biddeford, a lawyer. “We all have to tighten our belts as the judiciary has by consolidating, making services more efficient and improving [Internet access] for all branches.”          

The Associated Press contributed to this report.