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The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday asked lawmakers to spend $1.5 million to fully fund security screening at all of the state’s courthouses and to give Maine judges, who are the lowest paid in the nation, pay raises ranging from 7 percent to 18 percent.
Leigh I. Saufley also told a joint session of the Legislature that the need to expand community-based services to address “the sadness and despair related to drug and alcohol addiction and [the] mental health crisis in Maine” is as important this year as it was when she last addressed the body.
The urgent need to fund those services was the topic of Saufley’s last State of the Judiciary speech in 2019, and she has sharply criticized the state’s justice system for the lack of available community services in opinions she has written for the state’s high court.
In citing the need to fully fund courthouse entry screening, Saufley pointed out that marshals stopped a person earlier this month who tried to enter the Portland courthouse with two loaded handguns.
One was a .380 Colt semi-automatic handgun in a cocked position ready to fire six rounds with six additional rounds. The other was a loaded .357 Smith & Wesson revolver holding five rounds, with two additional five-round speed loaders. Currently, entry screeners staff courthouses on 65 percent of court days.
“Because of the presence and quick action of the marshals at the entry screening station, the individual was disarmed.” she said. “No one was injured.
“I ask you to think about those allegations for a moment,” Saufley continued. “If an individual carrying similar weapons had gone into one of the 35 percent of Maine’s courthouses that did not have entry screening that day, we could be having a very different conversation today.”
Creating 19 more marshal positions at a cost of $1.5 million would allow for 100 percent entry screening, she said.
Saufley also urged lawmakers to adopt recommendations from the State Compensation Commission that last month recommended raising the salaries of judges, legislators and the governor.
According to the National Center for State Courts, the average salary for Maine judges is $113,000 a year when adjusted for the local cost of living. The national median is $155,000.
The exact cost of a pay increase for all of Maine’s 63 judges and eight family law magistrates was not available Tuesday, and Saufley did not give a cost estimate in her speech.
The chief justice also said that efforts to modernize Maine’s court system continue with the implementation of an electronic case filing project expected to launch this fall in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. It is expected to be implemented statewide next year.
“From Houlton, Machias and Dover-Foxcroft to Bangor, Belfast and Augusta courthouse improvements have benefited the public,” she said. “Last week, the newly renovated Oxford County Courthouse in South Paris opened for business, improving accessibility, consolidating the clerks’ offices, opening two new courtrooms and providing the public with a much more respectful space for dispute resolution.”
The Justice Center of York County is slated to open in 2022 and will be the first net-zero energy courthouse in the state, Saufley announced. The courthouse is to be built in Biddeford at a cost of $65 million.
Gov. Janet Mills, who has known Saufley for many years and worked with her when Mills was attorney general, praised the chief justice’s efforts but did not promise to support her proposals.
“The judiciary is fortunate to have such a dynamic and thoughtful leader as Chief Justice Saufley,” Mills said after Saufley’s speech. “I appreciated her perspective and look forward to strengthening the judicial branch and potential areas of cooperation, including addressing the opioid crisis, to improve the lives of Maine people.”