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Chief justice says case backlog and complexity is straining judicial system

Judge Valerie Stanfill listens to the defense during the hearing on April 11, 2017 on a motion to spare the life of Dakota the dog, who was pardoned by then-Gov. LePage, in Waterville District Court.
Ashley L. Conti
Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Maine's top judge told lawmakers on Thursday that a court backlog, increasingly complicated cases and a lack of defense attorneys is putting a huge strain on the judicial branch.

“The pandemic was the tipping point that unmasked the reality that even before 2020, the courts and judicial system were straining to keep up with the demand of cases,” Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said in the annual "State of the Judiciary" address to the Legislature.

With Gov. Janet Mills and nearly all lawmakers in attendance, Stanfill laid out her case for additional money to add more judges, clerks, marshals and other staff. Stanfill said that because of the suspension of trials at the height of the COVID pandemic, courts have 65% more cases today than three years ago. Felony cases, which require far more time and staff resources to handle, are up 87% while misdemeanors are up 60%. Additionally, the number of child protective cases was trending upward even before the pandemic.

And Stanfill said that larger number of defendants struggling with substance use disorder or mental health disorders is “adding to the complexity of the cases,” with the number of mental health evaluations ordered by judges tripling between 2014 and 2022. And while electronic and remote hearings are often good for court users, they often require more work for the staff members who have to schedule meetings and scan documents for the proceedings. Stanfill told lawmaker that all of this is adding stressors to a system that was already strained before the pandemic.

"Judicial Branch employees are feeling the weight of a realization that it seems no matter what we do, we can’t catch up, we can’t address the backlog,” Stanfill said. “Frankly, it hurts my heart. For folks whose goal is public service and helping others, it’s a crisis of confidence."

Maine’s judicial system is also struggling to operate smoothly amid a shortage of defense attorneys willing to represent low-income defendants. Until a few months ago, Maine was the only state in the nation that relied entirely on private attorneys willing to represent defendants who can’t afford to hire their own lawyers. But the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which oversees the program that connects defendants with attorneys, has witnessed a dramatic decline in participating attorneys.

Lawmakers set aside money last year to hire five public defenders to help fulfill Maine’s constitutional obligation. Lawmakers are now considering proposals to significantly expand that program while recent moves to nearly double the reimbursement rate for private attorneys has helped draw more lawyers into the commission’s pool.

But Stanfill told lawmakers that it's not all bad news.

She highlighted work to diversify staffing within the judicial branch, increased accessibility in court spaces (both remotely and within courtrooms), training for judges to increase utilization of drug treatment and veterans courts, and a recent $550,000 grant to train court personnel who work with families with a history of domestic or domestic violence. Stanfill also pointed out that the new York County Judicial Center, which will consolidate several courts in a modern facility, is slated to open in May.

“Most importantly, words not often said, the project is on-time and on-budget,” she said.