Chief Justice Calls State of the Judiciary “Precarious”

March 17, 2009

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley delivered the State of the Judiciary to a Joint Session of the Maine Legislature and told legislators that the State of the Judiciary was “precarious.” She said that much progress has been made in recent years, and that last year “ working with you and with the Governor, the State’s system of justice was rebounding from years of under funding. Court security had been substantially improved, the equipment was in place and you had authorized, but not yet funded, new positions to screen guns from the courthouses. A new consolidated Courthouse was authorized to replace the outmoded and dangerous courts in Bangor. The Drug Treatment Courts had expanded into child protection cases, with an emphasis on reunifying families. The Business and Consumer Docket had been launched with very positive results. ”

She went on to observe, “then the economy began its downward slide. Two problems combined to create the precarious circumstances now facing Maine citizens in need of justice. First, the State was unable to fund the increased demand for constitutionally required services in criminal prosecutions and child protection cases. The money had to be taken from court operations. Second, across-the-board cuts further reduced the Judicial Branch budget. Last year, that combination resulted in the loss of more than $3 million dollars from Judicial Branch operations and left us with very few options.”

The Chief Justice said that the judicial budget is made up of three areas of funding: people, court buildings, and funds for constitutionally required legal services. Since only the legislature can close courthouses and payments for the constitutionally required services are mandated, that leaves only one area for the judiciary to cut when budgets are reduced. She told legislators that positions have been eliminated or kept vacant, and, as a result, court hours have been reduced in many courthouses, courthouse safety has been affected, and there are many more delays for the public and Maine businesses.

She asked the legislators to not approve any further cuts in the judicial budget, and to approve requests for improvements in technology and facilities. She noted that some of the financial solutions to the branch’s budget shortfall could be addressed within existing resources and the technology improvements would be funded by a federal grant.

The Chief justice told the Legislature, “ [T] he budget for [indigent legal services] in Maine is placed in the Judicial Branch. Having judges responsible for the payment of one party’s attorney, and in no way involved in payment or decision-making regarding the other parties, creates the appearance of a conflict of interest that has become intolerable.” She continued, “You would never think of putting the prosecutors, the District Attorneys, and Attorneys General, within the Judicial Branch budget. I cannot urge you strongly enough to support this proposal.” This can be accomplished at no additional cost to the state.

The Chief Justice also discussed recent efforts to increase efficiency and save taxpayers money, including the consolidation of clerks’ offices, which has resulted in increased productivity, lower administrative costs and greater convenience for Maine citizens using the courthouses. New courthouses in Bangor and Houlton will open later this year. Each city will be served by one building, instead of two, resulting in better security and efficiency. The Chief Justice urged the Legislature to approve funding for a new courthouse in Augusta which would, combine courtrooms at three locations in Augusta, be energy efficient, and provide for much needed improvements in security.

The Chief justice noted legislators have been responsive in addressing the needs of the judiciary in the past and she pledged to work with legislators to assure access to justice to all Maine citizens and businesses.

The Full text can be found on the judicial branch web site: www.courts.state.me.us/mainecourts/supreme/speeches/2009soj.html