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Maine’s court system needs an additional $14 million so it can safely resume full-time operations and start clearing a backlog of cases that has built up during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the state’s court administrator.
Most of the $14 million — which would represent a 16 percent increase over the court system’s $87.8 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 — would pay for technology upgrades so courts can hold more proceedings virtually rather than in person, Ted Glessner said.
Glessner on Monday was speaking before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee as that panel considers how much more money will be needed to deal with the fallout from the coronavirus epidemic.
The $14 million estimate is larger than a $13.1 million estimate Glessner provided in May of the cost of modifying court operations to incorporate safety measures meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The court system’s most crucial need is an $8.5 million technology upgrade so courts can hold more hearings virtually, Glessner said. The software that has proven most adaptable is Zoom because it allows for parties — such as defense attorneys and their clients — to break off into virtual conference rooms to speak privately. It also allows the public and the press to observe the proceedings.
“The move toward more ‘virtual’ hearings is a major historical shift in Judicial Branch operations,” he told committee members.
The court system also requested about $3.5 million in May to renovate courtrooms and conference rooms to allow for social distancing and to upgrade ventilation systems. Included in this request is money for smaller courthouses to rent facilities for jury selection when trials resume this fall.
On Monday, Glessner requested an additional $227,000 to install plexiglass shields in clerks’ offices and about $80,000 for personal protective equipment for staff and people who show up at courthouses without masks. The original request in May was for $600,000 for office shields and nearly $177,000 for cleaning equipment and masks.
The May request also included $300,000 for an architect to recommend permanent changes to courthouses.
Because courts limited their operations in mid-March and won’t resume full operations until September at the earliest, there is a significant backlog of cases. Glessner in his written testimony did not say how many cases are pending but said the backlog is significant.
“The bottom line is that our courthouses and paper systems have proved to be inadequate in the face of this public health emergency,” he said. “We can no longer delay justice. We must move forward to hear cases and address the backlog.”
Courts have started to hold some proceedings virtually, among other measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Glessner said.
“But we must do more if we are to become fully operational. We simply cannot wait for the pandemic to be over,” he said.
The implementation of an electronic case filing system to replace the current paper-based system is still on track, with a pilot program with civil and family cases in the Bangor courthouse set to start this fall, he said.