Maine chief justice says courts meet challengesAP , Associated Press
Feb. 21, 2013 5:02 PM ET
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Large caseloads, aging courthouses and antiquated technology challenge the state's judicial system, but the courts view those and other issues as opportunities and are addressing them, Maine's top judge told lawmakers Thursday.
Taking up a theme of past speeches, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said court security has improved, important steps have been taken to combat domestic violence in the state, the rate of juvenile detention is down and participation in a mortgage foreclosure mediation program is up.
"So, if, like me, you occasionally feel overwhelmed by the challenges of the day, remember, this is Maine," Saufley told House and Senate members in her annual state of the judiciary address. "Working together, we have made a difference — in combatting domestic violence, in improving public safety, in expediting business and criminal cases, in addressing the foreclosure challenges and in achieving workplace efficiencies."
Saufley listed as a "resounding success" the court system's new service center, based in Lewiston. Established in 2012, the center answers phone calls that would have gone to clerks' offices in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties. Based on that, the courts are looking at expanding its service center and centralizing other court functions, the chief justice said.
Courthouse security has improved, said Saufley. Entry screening is done about 50 percent of the time, up from 20 percent two years ago.
To ease the burden of growing criminal caseloads, the courts will broaden a pilot program to end unnecessary, repeated appearances by witnesses and victims, substantially shortening the time to resolve charges and cutting clerical work, the judge said.
Courthouse renovations were completed in Houlton and Dover-Foxcroft and a new, consolidated courthouse has been built in Bangor. Now, a courthouse is being built in Augusta that will replace cramped and dangerous district courtrooms and consolidate three court locations into a modern, safe, accessible center for justice, Saufley said.
Saufley said more is being done to provide free legal services to Mainers, due largely to lawyers' voluntary services and their financial contributions to the Campaign for Justice.
"Lawyers sometimes get a bad rap. But in a system based on the rule of law — the very reason you work so hard — lawyers provide a critically important service," Saufley said.
Headed by Saufley, Maine's judicial branch includes 38 courthouses and employs nearly 500 people. Its expenses account for about 1.7 percent of the state budget, Saufley said. In fiscal year 2012, more than 140,000 cases were filed, along with more than 101,000 traffic infractions. Excluding uncontested traffic infractions, that means that more than 3,000 cases were filed in Maine's courts each week.