AUGUSTA – When state Rep. Erin Herbig was granted a temporary protection-from-abuse order against a fellow lawmaker last week, she used a tool that experts say provides an important cooling-down period when tensions between two people are running too high.

The temporary orders also provide police with additional tools to keep such situations from becoming violent.

More than 6,000 Mainers — overwhelmingly women — requested such orders last year to help protect them from potential violence in the heat of domestic conflict. That number has fluctuated only slightly in recent years, according to state court officials.

Temporary protection orders are not difficult to obtain — a judge reviews a request and rules on whether to grant the order without input from the person it would apply to. Permanent protection order requests are more thoroughly scrutinized — a hearing is held and a judge hears from both parties, along with weighing additional evidence.

Judges are more likely than not to grant the temporary orders because it’s safer to do so than risk someone being harmed because no order was issued, said Walter McKee, an Augusta criminal defense attorney. Most of the requests are legitimate, although occasionally someone will file a request just to make trouble for a partner, he said.

Herbig, a Democrat from Belfast, was granted a temporary order last Monday against Rep. Alex Cornell du Houx, D-Brunswick. In court papers, Herbig alleged that he stalked her at home and at the State House after their relationship ended.

A hearing to determine whether the order should be made permanent is set for May 14.

To obtain the temporary order, Herbig went to Belfast District Court, filled out a four-page form and submitted a handwritten eight-page statement describing the situation. She also provided a letter her attorney had written in April asking Cornell du Houx not to have any contact with her.

Legislative leaders said they are hoping for guidance from the court on how to handle having Herbig and Cornell du Houx in the State House at the same time. The Legislature is now in recess, but lawmakers are due to return for budget deliberations May 15, the day after the court hearing on whether to extend Herbig’s temporary order.

Judges review requests for temporary orders quickly during court hours, and decide whether there are grounds for granting them.

“The temporary order is to be sure everybody is calmed down and safe until both sides can present their side of the story,” said Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Orders often bar contact between the parties, including at home, school or place of employment. Anyone subject to an order can be banned from possessing firearms until a hearing is held.

There’s a higher threshold for obtaining a permanent order, said Lois Reckitt, executive director of Family Crisis Services, which serves Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties.

In 2011, 6,209 requests for temporary protection-from-abuse orders were filed statewide. Of those, 4,949 temporary orders were granted, leading to 2,155 permanent orders.

Colpitts said temporary orders don’t always lead to permanent ones. Sometimes the alleged victim drops the case or there aren’t sufficient grounds for extending an order. Sometimes couples reconcile.

Although there have been high-profile cases in which an abuser has ignored an order, for the most part they are effective in defusing volatile domestic situations, she said.

Assistant Chief Vern Malloch of the Portland Police Department said a protection-from-abuse order provides law enforcement with a powerful tool.

“The police departments like it because it sets boundaries for someone and places someone on notice that this behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop,” he said.

Officers can arrest someone for behavior prohibited by the order, such as coming within a certain distance of someone’s home, that otherwise wouldn’t be a criminal offense, he said.

Malloch noted that law enforcement agencies now have statewide access to information about whether an individual is protected by an order or had one granted against him or her. Before the system was in place, a protected person would have to relay the information to officers, who would have to verify that an order was in effect, he said.

Reckitt said protection orders work best when they’re part of a comprehensive process that includes safety planning for the victim. She said when there’s a significant risk of danger, it’s particularly important that others take some responsibility for keeping the person safe.

“For instance, if you are an employer, you might have two people who are involved in a protective order situation. So it’s your responsibility as an employer to figure out what you’re going to do about that,” she said, whether it is making sure the individuals aren’t working the same shift, sharing the same space or other measures.

– Staff Writer Ann S. Kim contributed to this report.

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@m.inetoday.com