When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it shut down Maine’s court system, creating a serious backlog of cases.
According to Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court, about 9,200 criminal cases have been pending for more than six months, compared with just 2,600 such cases at this time last year.
Supreme Judicial Court Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about the backlog, which he has described as “staggering.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Mead: We are operating at full capacity as regards in-person proceedings right now. Every available judge, every available location is being pressed into service. We have two platforms for processing cases: one is in person — as I said, those resources are maxed out at present — and the other is by remote video, by Zoom. And that is being leveraged. It’s increasing as we speak. We’re getting better and better at it. But those are our only two methods of processing legal matters at the present time. And it’s not enough. We have reached the reality check. We realize that we can barely hold on as opposed to digging into the backlogs.
Flaherty: As you go forward with hearing cases and maybe as the possibility of hearing more cases in person opens up, how will courts decide which cases are heard first?
We have priority cases. We have a list of priority cases where people who are in danger of being hurt or abused or even killed, those cases come first. We also consider folks who have constitutional liberty interests at stake, people awaiting trials in jails, they’re at the top of the list also. So the priority list cases come first. We would do them by age, the older ones would be addressed first, but it’s going to be all hands on deck once we can get back to our normal operations. And I suspect that we will be able to do things even better than we did before the pandemic. We have leveraged video, we have leveraged every possible efficiency we can along the way. So we will be flogging the backlogs and the current lists once we are opened up to something that looks like normal.
There are some people who are currently being held without bail prior to trial, maybe because they’ve been denied bail or because they weren’t able to pay bail. What happens to their right to a speedy trial? How long are they likely to be held? And is there any discussion about letting some of those people out while they await trial, given the situation?
For folks that are being held in lieu of bail, there is an effort afoot to avoid that in the first place. All of our judges are to consider the fact that if they hold a person in lieu of bail, they are committing them to a setting that is congregate housing, which by definition raises the risk of COVID. So we try to avoid that circumstance there. You inquire about speedy trial. That is a big question mark all across the country. They’re being held for periods that may exceed what in the past has been deemed to be a limitation of speedy trial. Test cases will come up to the courts, and they will have to look at that in the context of the pandemic, and does that alter the analysis? And I cannot offer an opinion on that because it’s quite likely that our court may address one or more cases of that type. And we’ll find out, I guess, perhaps when the United States Supreme Court hands something down.
We do have a vaccine now for COVID-19. But it’s unlikely to be widely distributed in the next couple months at least. What are jury trials going to look like then in the new year? How are courthouses going to plan for social distancing and mask wearing and jury deliberations?
We, like everyone else, are hopeful that the vaccines will open things up sooner rather than later. We actually have encouraged the folks who make these decisions to consider court personnel — meaning marshals, clerks and judges — to be frontline essential workers. That doesn’t solve the problem for jurors or other folks who come in. I had hoped to have jury trials up and running by now. We did a couple of experimental trials in October, we discovered we can do them. But as the COVID crisis has worsened, and we have ramped up our protective measures, we have looked down the road and don’t think we can manage jury trials, at least through the first several months of 2021. And when I say jury trials, I’m talking about the criminal trials, because they are enormously backlogged. There are folks with valid claims waiting to get into a civil jury trial. And those are waiting in line behind the criminal trials. All of this is deeply distressing to all of us and to anyone who is waiting. We’re in the business of providing a forum for folks to reach peaceful resolutions of human conflict. And that’s what we can’t deliver right now, simply because of the logistics. It is deeply frustrating.