AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s judicial system may address a backlog of criminal cases by sending Supreme Judicial Court justices to trial courts in the spring, which could require more money from the Legislature.
Details are thin on the plan, which Gov. Paul LePage teased in his regular Tuesday appearance on WVOM, a Bangor radio station, saying the seven Law Court justices will take a month off to go to criminal courts to “try to get their dockets lowered.”
Mary Ann Lynch, the Maine court system’s spokeswoman, said that’s part of the plan, which the judiciary is still formulating. It likely would happen this spring, after the Maine Senate confirms the Republican governor’s three nominees for District Court judgeships.
While “there are a lot of moving parts” to the plan, Lynch said it also could include scheduling more criminal cases and fewer civil cases and asking the Legislature for a supplemental budget to provide more money to pay jurors.
Lynch couldn’t quantify Maine’s criminal case backlog on Tuesday, when all state courts were closed because of inclement weather. New criminal filings fell by more than 3 percent between the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years, from under 56,000 to fewer than 54,000, according to the state.
But LePage has been calling for more judges to attack Maine’s drug crisis. Lynch said it’s “clear that the drug problem has grown in Maine,” which has affected caseloads.
Drug overdoses — primarily attributed to heroin and fentanyl — killed 105 people in Maine during the first half of 2015, and agents said they dealt with a record 54th meth lab of the year last week in Wesley.
The governor blasted lawmakers in June, after they passed a state budget that funded two more judges, which was two fewer than LePage wanted.
A $4.8 million plan from legislative leaders rolled out earlier this month would add 10 more drug agents, but it didn’t address judges. Nor did a $781,000 financial order from LePage that would fund those positions on a short-term basis.
Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said in a Tuesday statement that “clearing any court backlog must be a priority, and I applaud the justices for looking outside the box.”
“We’re all eager for a solution, and I look forward to learning more about the judicial branch’s plan to address this problem,” he said.