Despite being on a list of eight courthouses with potential to close, a senator on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee said he was “guardedly optimistic” Bridgton District Court would remain open.

The judicial department, like other state departments, is facing possible budget cuts because of declining state revenues. Closing courthouses is one of the cost saving measures the department is considering.

However, Sen. David Hastings III (R-Fryeburg) said he doesn’t think the Bridgton Court will be the first to go.

“I don’t believe at this point Bridgton is on the short list,” said Hastings, who was recently re-appointed to the joint Judiciary Committee.

The courthouse, with more than 3,500 cases filed in 2007 from Cumberland and Oxford counties, is a fairly busy courthouse compared to others in the state, said Mary Ann Lynch, director of court information. With only one courtroom, “it’s small, but it’s busy,” Lynch said.

As of Jan. 1, however, Bridgton District Court will be a little less busy. Only initial appearances for Cumberland County criminal cases will take place there, with all other hearings and trials taking place in Portland.

The shift to Portland is intended to reduce work for everyone, Lynch said, by reducing filing duplications. Criminal court proceedings will be on file in Portland only.

Having just presented a budget for the next two fiscal years to Gov. John Baldacci, Lynch said it was premature to talk about closing courthouses.

“It’s going to be a really challenging budget year,” Lynch said.

The judicial department was spared cuts in the supplemental budget released by the governor Dec. 16 to offset $140 million in declining revenue for the current fiscal year, but it did not receive $690,000 requested to cover increased costs of indigent legal services. It was the only branch not to be cut, Lynch said.

For the two-year budget starting July 1, 2009, it may be harder for the judicial branch to escape cuts, as revenue is projected to be down $330 million and an additional $508 million has been requested to keep all branches of state government operating at current levels, according to the governor’s office.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley assembled a Courthouse Advisory Committee this month at the request of Gov. Baldacci to discuss potential closings. Hastings, who is a member of the committee, said Saufley told them Baldacci had asked the judiciary to reduce its facilities budget by $400,000, which could be done only by closing one or more district courthouses.

The district courts on the list of those that could close are Bridgton, Calais, Lincoln, Madawaska, Millinocket, Newport, Rumford and York, Lynch said.

“We looked at the distance from that courthouse to the receiving courthouse,” Lynch said. “We also looked at whether a neighboring courthouse could take the work.”

Bridgton is the courthouse with the second highest number of filings on the list, behind York. If the courthouse were to close, Cumberland County cases would be transferred to Portland, and Oxford County cases would be transferred to South Paris.

But Hastings did not think Bridgton would be the first to go and said decisions about the budget were nowhere near made.

“We’re going to have to battle this out over the winter,” Hastings said.

Baldacci plans to present a budget to the Legislature Jan. 9 for the next two fiscal years. After that, it will be up for discussion in the Legislature.

Hastings and Lynch said the judicial budget is growing largely because of the increase in costs to provide representation for those who can’t afford to hire lawyers, a service that is constitutionally mandated.

“It’s patently unfair that the judicial budget should be responsible for indigent defense,” Hastings said. “It’s really an obligation of the whole state, not just the courts.”

Lynch said 21 percent of the judicial department’s more than $63 million budget goes to indigent legal defense. This amount has doubled in the last 10 years from $7 million in fiscal year 1999 to $13.5 million in the current fiscal year.

In comparison to the expense of providing defense, the savings that could be gained from closing a courthouse are relatively small. Hastings estimated a savings of $60,000 a year from closing the Bridgton courthouse.

“It may save the state a little money, but it shifts the cost onto the towns,” Hastings said. Bridgton police officers would have to travel to prosecute cases, and citizens would have to travel as well.

“The savings are not tremendous,” Lynch said. “The cases don’t go away. The work doesn’t go away.”

The difficulty, Lynch said, is being able to staff 40 courthouses with a 10 percent vacancy rate in around 500 positions. Since the beginning of 2008, there has been an informal hiring freeze in the courts to cut costs. Though Bridgton has the caseload to warrant 4.5 clerks, only three are employed there.

“We have really just two things in our budget – people and courthouses,” Lynch said.

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