A Bangor lawmaker wants Maine’s county-level probate judges to be appointed rather than elected, and she wants them to be full-time positions.
Those are among a number of changes the lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Barbara Cardone, is proposing to Maine’s Probate Court system in legislation under consideration this winter.
Cardone is asking the Legislature to change the state’s 16 part-time probate judges elected in each county into full-time appointed judges who report to the state judicial system rather than their respective county commissioners and voters.
“Judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature are subject to initial review by those who have experience in the court system through the governor’s nomination process,” Cardone said Friday. “Their qualifications are then subject to review by the Legislature and the public in a public confirmation hearing.
“I think this two-tiered process is a better method of ensuring qualified candidates than the process of a public election, without cutting the public out of the selection process,” said Cardone, an attorney who practices family law in Bangor and is serving her second term in the Maine House.
Maine’s probate courts handle name changes, adoptions, guardianship matters and estates. Judges are elected every four years in partisan elections along with other county positions, including sheriffs, district attorneys, and registers of deeds and probate.
LD 657, the bill Cardone is sponsoring, also calls for the state to pay for the probate courts to make their electronic case filing system, which was implemented in 2013, compatible with the $10 million computer system the judiciary is implementing.
A hearing on the bill is scheduled to be held Tuesday before the Legislature’s judiciary committee, but Cardone expects it will be referred to a subcommittee that would outline more specific recommendations and a proposed plan for implementing them going forward.
If passed, the bill would eliminate the office of probate judge as it now exists and create a number of state court judge positions. A majority of the judges would serve more than one county in a similar fashion to the state’s eight district attorneys, according to Cardone.
Caseloads differ dramatically from county to county depending on population density.
“With full-time judges, the judiciary can manage a statewide probate caseload and concentrate judge time in higher-need counties,” she said. “This arrangement should result in more efficient case handling throughout the state. With judicial oversight at the state level, the judiciary can implement uniform and consistent procedures for the probate courts, instead of the courts being subject to 16 different procedures, depending on the county location.”
Maine is one of five states where voters elect probate judges. The others are Connecticut, Georgia, South Carolina and Vermont. A debate over whether judges should be elected or appointed has roiled in the 20 or so states that elect some or all of their judges.
Probate judges are the only judicial positions in Maine that are elected. All other judges must be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate except for family court judges, who are hired by the judiciary.
According to the bill’s summary, Maine voters set the state on a path toward eliminating probate judges and registers of probate more than 50 years ago when they approved a constitutional amendment that conditionally repealed the offices. The repeal takes effect when the Legislature provides funding for reforms and full-time judges.
Cardone’s bill would not end the election of county registers of probate but would transfer their oversight from the county commissioners to the probate judge appointed to serve that county.
The cost of the bill has not yet been determined, but judges in Maine, except those on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, are paid $125,632 per year, according to the National Center for State Courts. Maine ranks last among states for judicial salaries.
If the the state were to follow the same districts used for prosecutors and create eight new judgeships, the salary cost alone would be more than $1 million.
The Maine County Commissioners Association is opposed to the bill, according to Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci.
“We are always interested in improvements in the probate system, but we are concerned with the proposal to have state judges appointed by the governor to replace elected probate judges,” he said. “If this bill is to start a discussion on ways to improve the system, we are open to that.”
The judiciary will not take a stand on the bill but would be available to provide lawmakers information about the logistical, financial or other impacts of the bill, spokeswoman Elaine Clark said.
Requests for comments on the bill from probate judges were not immediately returned.