Leaders of Maine’s judicial branch say they will not schedule jury trials during the last two weeks of December, in an effort to stay within the court system’s $49 million budget.

The freeze on trials is expected to defer only about $20,000 in jurors’ pay and mileage, but the courts have few other options to trim costs for the fiscal year that started July 1, said Mary Ann Lynch, the system’s spokeswoman.

“We don’t have enough money to operate the way we need to,” said Lynch, the state’s director of court information.

“We have to cut back money on jury trials somewhere,” she said. “Doing it the second half of December creates the least havoc in the system.”

Holidays at that time of year already cut into the court schedule, she said.

Defense lawyers say that any disruption of the dockets – which have been slowed recently because of nearly three dozen frozen positions among the ranks of court clerks and marshals – will mean longer waits in jail for people whose cases aren’t settled by plea agreements or dismissals.

The lawyers threatened to sue the state during budget talks two years ago, in response to a proposal for a six-week moratorium on trials.

“There are concerns about the constitutional rights of defendants,” said Walt McKee of Augusta, who chairs the legislative committee of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He had not heard of the plan to freeze jury trials for part of December.

McKee expects the biggest impact will be in rural areas, such as Washington and Piscataquis counties, where trials aren’t held every month as they are in more populated sections of Maine.

“We will need to assess what the damage is to our individual clients,” McKee said. “The question will be, how much will this set back cases from trial?”

Lynch and McKee agree that the circumstances will be far worse if the judicial branch has to cut a substantial amount of money in any curtailment order from Gov. John Baldacci.

A vote expected in the U.S. House of Representatives today is expected to go a long way toward determining whether a significant cut will be required.

In the past month, the heads of all state departments, as well as the judicial branch, were asked to develop plans for cutting their budgets in case Congress fails to approve $100 million in Medicaid funds that are destined for Maine. The target cut for the judicial branch is $2.1 million.

Last week, the U.S. Senate approved a $26 billion spending bill that would send about $77 million of the Medicaid funds to Maine.

The House interrupted its vacation for a vote on that bill, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. today.

If the bill passes and is signed by President Obama, state officials will face a $23 million budget shortfall, instead of $100 million.

“We don’t want to count any chickens here, but we are hopeful that the House will enact the legislation,” said Ellen Schneiter, acting commissioner of Maine’s Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

If the federal dollars come, Schneiter and her team will likely consult with Baldacci and seek lower targets for cuts from state departments.

Lynch hopes that scenario plays out. For the past two years, the court system has frozen about 10 percent of its open positions, except for judges. A $2.1 million budget cut this year would force the courts to keep open even more than the 35 positions that are frozen now, Lynch said.

“We will have delays in trials. Prosecutions will be delayed. Defendants will spend a longer time in jail. Divorce and child custody is going to take longer,” Lynch said.

Tougher decisions, such as potential courthouse closures, would be considered in the event of a significant cut.

“We do not think we can continue to operate 39 courthouses with fewer people,” Lynch said.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: [email protected]