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Report: Maine trial courts need dozens of more judges and clerks to keep pace with current workload

A recent study commissioned by the Maine Judicial Branch finds that the state's trial courts need at least nine more judges and 53 additional clerks to keep up with their existing caseload.

Those resources are on top of whatever overtime or other staff may be needed to tackle a daunting case backlog created during the pandemic, according to the report from the National Center for State Courts, an independent non-profit.

Barbara Cardone, director of legal and public affairs for the Maine Judicial Branch, said the courts have been struggling to retain young clerks in recent years. And senior clerks are struggling to keep up with the pace of constantly training new ones.

The result, Cardone said, is that cases are taking longer to resolve.

"It impacts the ability of the courts to deliver justice in a timely way to the residents of Maine," she said. "It is also ultimately the people of Maine who are paying the price for this."

In addition to the pressures of training new clerks, new technology, such as body cam and other audio and video footage, has contributed to the workload. Cardone said there's more material to sort through in discovery, drawing out the process for many criminal cases.

"This is really a question of adding resources to our system so that we can be prepared to deal with the reality of administration of justice in the 21st century," she said.

According to the study, Maine trial judges would like more time to prepare their findings and orders, but their workload often prevents them from explaining their rulings to defendants and litigants in more detail.

And just 14% of clerks said they had enough time on a regular basis to get their work done, often sacrificing customer service to keep up courtroom and training duties.

The National Center for State Courts, which has conducted dozens of similar reports across the country, did not include judicial marshals or IT support technicians as part of its Maine study, though Cardone said both positions are short-staffed as well. In addition, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is not part of the study.

Cardone said the Legislature has been briefed on the report. Now it's up to state lawmakers who are deep in budget negotiations to decide how — or if — to act on the recommendations, she said.