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Maine judicial system improving but still not ‘hale and hearty,’ chief justice says

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Maine judicial system improving but still not ‘hale and hearty,’ chief justice says

Feb 21, 2024 | 2:35 pm ET
By Evan Popp
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Maine judicial system improving but still not ‘hale and hearty,’ chief justice says
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The old and new courthouses of the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. Jan. 5, 2021. Photo: Jim Neuger

Maine’s judicial system is in a better position than it was a year ago. But significant issues still remain. 

That’s what Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill told the state Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills during a speech Wednesday outlining the state of the judiciary.

“We’re not yet hale and hearty. But I am pleased to report we are nowhere near as frail as we were a year ago,” Stanfill said. “Indeed, I’m hopeful — hopeful that with new resources, we can continue to create a justice system that meets the needs of Maine people in the 21st century.”  

During her speech, Stanfill ran through some of the accomplishments of the judicial system in 2023, such as beginning to address a backlog in cases and improving the system’s technological capabilities. She also highlighted continued challenges, such as the state’s embattled indigent legal defense system.

Maine judicial system improving but still not ‘hale and hearty,’ chief justice says
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill delivers the state of the judiciary speech Wednesday | Screenshot

On the backlog of cases — which has reached into the tens of thousands across the state — Stanfill said there was a modest 3% increase in the judicial system’s rate of closing dockets. And when it comes to criminal dockets, both the number of pending cases and the length of time cases stay pending has been reduced, she said. However, Stanfill said this progress was largely the result of a concerted “blitz” by the judicial system to clear cases and is not sustainable in the long run. 

She added that on other docket types, such as family cases, the average age of the case has increased. 

Stanfill said the judiciary system needs resources to keep up with the number of cases being filed and to address the backlog. She thanked lawmakers and the Mills administration for beginning to address the problem in the budget passed last year. That budget provided funding for additional judge positions, marshals, court attendants and other necessary parts of the judicial system, she said. 

“We do not have all the positions we need,” Stanfill said, noting that there is no funding for new clerk positions (which the system needs 40 of) until July. “… So there will be additional requests in the future, but I am grateful for the positions you gave us. Creating the right-size judicial branch for the state of Maine is a multi-year process.” 

In her speech, Stanfill said she believes the system’s biggest achievement of 2023 was the restart of implementing the Maine ECourts program — which seeks to establish a fully integrated system for filing, docketing and managing cases. She said implementation of that program was paused in 2020 in order to analyze how to make it better. That work has paid off, Stanfill said, and the initiative is being rolled out in select civil, child protective and family cases in locations around the state. The goal is to have the initiative fully operational for all case types by the end of 2026, she said. 

Stanfill listed out a number of other steps taken in 2023, including restarting and expanding training for clerks, an integrated judicial center in Biddeford for York County, and enhanced internal communication with employees, among other initiatives. 

Indigent legal defense system in ‘constitutional crisis’

Despite that progress, serious issues remain, Stanfill warned. One of the most significant is Maine’s troubled indigent legal defense system, she said. 

Stanfill noted that the state is obligated to provide a lawyer for those who need one. Too often, though, that is not happening. 

“We are in a constitutional crisis,” she said. … “We have people sitting in jail everyday — frequently a dozen or more in Aroostook County alone — without an attorney because there is no one to take their case.” 

Unlike other states, Maine has long contracted out indigent legal defense to private attorneys rather than relying on public defenders. That is slowly changing, with the state authorizing the hiring of more than a dozen public defenders, but Stanfill said access to lawyers for low-income defendants remains an issue and upping the pay for private attorneys to take such cases has not solved the problem.  

“I hope that adding some public defenders will help, but it will be a while before we really see results,” she said. “And in the meantime, I fear the system will indeed collapse.” 

Others agreed with the chief justice’s assessment. James Billings, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS) said it is tragic that anyone is sitting in jail without a lawyer. While he said there is no immediate short-term fix, he argued the long-term solution is to invest in hiring more public defenders. 

The ACLU of Maine, which sued the state over its indigent legal defense system, also agreed with Standfill’s comments. ACLU policy director Meagan Sway said the way the structure is set up now has significant consequences.   

“When people are denied access to counsel, many wind up incarcerated for weeks or months at a time simply because they cannot afford to pay bail and at a time when they are presumed innocent,” Sway said.  

“Legislators should take action on the budget proposal from MCILS to create four new public defender offices,” Sway added. “This would begin the process of creating a public defense system that upholds Maine people’s Sixth Amendment rights.”

Additional needs 

There are further gaps within the judicial system that need to be addressed, Stanfill said in her speech. One is providing the necessary resources to ensure courts have the technology to operate in the 21st century. She said such infrastructure can no longer be treated as an afterthought but needs consistent monitoring and updating. 

One challenge is creating a sustainable funding source for technology, Stanfill said. She noted that lawmakers had previously asked the judicial system to fund some of the cost of Maine ECourts through tacking on surcharges on filing fees and fines, with the biggest source of money coming from traffic tickets. However, she said traffic tickets are declining in frequency and that such funding mechanisms often leave those least able to pay on the hook. 

As a result, Stanfill said the judicial branch requested and the governor included in the supplemental budget proposal $3.75 million in funding for the next two fiscal years for the ECourts program from the general fund. 

Stanfill also noted that the system has put forward a bond bill, LD 2090, that would allow it to build three new courthouse buildings to help “meet the needs of staff and of the public.” That construction would cost $200 million, she said.   

“There are still many gaps in our judicial branch, and many needs that cannot be paid for with a tax on fines,” Stanfill told lawmakers. “They are the needs without which courts cannot function in the 21st century.”