AUGUSTA – Maine’s court system has made improvements in security, technology and consolidation in recent years, but has further to go, the Supreme Judicial Court’s chief justice said Thursday during her annual address to the Legislature.

Noting that it was her 10th State of the Judiciary address, Justice Leigh Saufley used the opportunity to reflect on the last decade and share her vision for the next.

“The collegial and collaborative efforts of Maine’s separate branches of government have made all the difference in our capacity to establish justice during these last many hard economic years,” she said. “(But) the Maine judicial branch has been substantially underfunded for decades.”

Saufley praised Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal for the judiciary branch, saying it would allow vacant positions to get filled and provide resources to improve security and Maine’s business court system.

The total judiciary operations budget is $49 million, she said, with an additional $6.8 million in debt payments. Saufley called it “one of the leanest judicial budgets in the country.”

Security remains a top concern, she said, noting that in the last several weeks, three handguns have been taken from people entering courthouses during security screenings.

“We’ve progressed from zero days of entry screening in our courthouses to screening approximately 20 percent of our courthouses on a daily basis,” Saufley said. “But we can’t stop there … it’s only a matter of time until something tragic happens in one of those courthouses, without a screener at the door.”

She touted past and current courthouse consolidation efforts and initiatives under way to streamline criminal dockets. Despite the improvements, the system is overwhelmed, she said.

“With only 53 trial judges across the state and with 150,000 new cases every court year, there’s not enough staff to respond to the cases that are presented; that is 600 new cases every court day, and that doesn’t include 130,000 traffic infractions,” she said.

Saufley also told lawmakers that civil filings have increased 48 percent over the last five years, driven by increases in mortgage foreclosures and debt collection.

“In contrast, criminal filings are down 20 percent over the last five years,” she said. Criminal cases used to comprise about 50 percent of the workload, but now represent only about 44 percent, Saufley said.

Saufley said the judiciary also must do more to improve things for Maine’s business community.

“One of our goals must be to provide better public service for our business communities,” she said. “Our fledgling business and consumer docket has suffered substantially with staffing limitations. Delays and uncertainty do not support a solid business climate.”

Saufley ended her address by encouraging legislators to help improve justice in Maine by visiting their local courthouses.

“Watch justice in action and give us your feedback,” she said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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