York County Probate Judge Robert M.A. Nadeau on Wednesday denied accusations by county officials that he created an artificial backlog of court cases in retaliation for not getting a substantial raise he requested.

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald, the elected part-time judge said he is undeterred by the latest round of accusations against him, this time by the York County Commissioners, and will continue to hear probate matters on the schedule he believes best serves the people of York County.

The commissioners brought their accusations against Nadeau to a state committee that reviews complaints against judges.

Nadeau is confident that when the Committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability concludes its review, it will agree with him that the Probate Court is underfunded and that the backlog is real.

“I believe when they hear all of the facts they will understand that what we have in York County is a very serious problem of underfunding of judicial time. Since 1999, the workload in the Probate Court has quadrupled. Since 2008, it has doubled,” Nadeau said.

The county commissioners, in their accusations against Nadeau, cited emails he sent on April 15-16 to Registrar of Probate Carol Lovejoy within hours after the board rejected the judge’s proposed salary increase from $48,499 to as much as $120,000, ordering her to reschedule all cases before the court.

The commissioners sent a letter to Nadeau on Nov. 5 saying that his scheduling order for estate, adoption and name change cases brought some probate work to a halt.

The Committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability is scheduled to hear more testimony in the case Tuesday in Augusta, Nadeau said. If the committee concludes that Nadeau violated the Judicial Code of Conduct, it could then recommend to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that he be disciplined.

Possible sanctions against Nadeau are stacking up. The Supreme Judicial Court already is considering a recommendation by the committee that Nadeau be suspended without pay from his judicial duties for four weeks for judicial code violations in 2012 and 2013.

JUDGE HAS HISTORY OF REPRIMANDS

The state’s highest court heard arguments last week on the recommendation by the responsibility and disability committee that Nadeau, in addition to the suspension, pay $4,000 to hire a substitute judge in his absence. Nadeau’s attorney, Stephen Wade, argued that the judge shouldn’t be disciplined. The high court has yet to rule in that case.

Nadeau already has been publicly reprimanded multiple times, including being suspended from his judicial duties for 30 days in 2007 by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Nadeau was first elected York County probate judge in 1996 and re-elected in 2000 and 2004. He was defeated in 2008 after disciplinary actions against him, but was elected again in 2012.

Nadeau said the latest allegation is based almost entirely on information provided by Lovejoy, who also is an elected official as registrar of probate.

Lovejoy testified before the county commissioners Oct. 7 that there was no probate court backlog before Nadeau imposed scheduling changes in April and only enough cases for perhaps a few extra days of work per month.

“To be perfectly frank, she’s misinformed. We need far more than that,” Nadeau said.

The county commissioners did give Nadeau a raise in their April 15 vote, to $54,206 a year for working two days per week, but rejected his proposal to work three days per week for $90,000 or five days per week for $120,000.

“When they rejected that request, I realized I needed to do something to the schedule to enable the court to hear emergency hearings when they came into the courtroom as quickly as possible,” Nadeau said. “The focus of these changes is solely about finding the best way to meet the most needy cases within the limits of the available county funding as quickly as possible. That’s what it’s about.”

Nadeau had been hearing cases on Wednesdays and holding trials on Thursdays. He said he changed the schedule to Mondays and Fridays so that if he started hearing a case on a Monday that required more than one day, he could continue hearings into the weekdays before Friday to resolve the cases quickly rather than stretch them over weeks or months.

In the past six months since Nadeau imposed the scheduling changes, he said he has presided over three lengthy, highly contested adoption cases.

Nadeau said that if he had not prioritized the schedule the way he did, “those children would have been in limbo.”

“Without the needed funding, I had to make a decision,” he said. “It really bothered me to the point where I tossed and turned, thinking about what I needed to do and what I could do to ensure that we would have time on the docket when we needed it for emergency family hearings.”

Nadeau said his differences with the county commissioners are similar to those between state branches of government.

“The chief justice gets to advocate to the Legislature and governor when it comes to funding needs of the court. And I’m the chief judge, if you will, the chief cook and bottle washer, of the York County Probate Court. There are 16 probate courts in the state, one judge per county. The volume of work each judge has to deal with differs markedly based on population,” he said.

Nadeau said he returned to being a probate judge in his most recent elected term because he loves the work, not because of the money.

Working part time as a judge while trying to maintain a private practice means he makes about half what he did when he had a full-time private practice, he said.

TRYING TO MEET NEEDS OF THE PUBLIC

Cabanne Howard, executive secretary of the Judicial Responsibility and Disability Committee, declined to say what action, if any, the committee would take in response to the county commission’s accusations against Nadeau.

“Everything the committee does until it decides to make a recommendation to the Supreme Judicial Court is confidential,” Howard said Monday.

Nadeau said it isn’t unusual that the responsibility and disability committee is hearing the county commissioners’ accusation against him.

“I don’t know what will come of that,” he said. “But I know that the committee is naturally going to react to a complaint from any government official. They are going to take that more seriously, at least until they hear all of the facts. So I understand that.”

Until then, Nadeau said he considers it his duty to prioritize the cases before him and continue to advocate for more funding so all cases can be heard in a more timely manner.

“My goal has always been and will forever be that the needs of the people who come before the court are going to be met as much as possible. And if I, unfortunately, have to continue to advocate for more support for county government to enable me to meet those needs, I will take the heat. I will do that, because that is my job as a judge,” he said. It isn’t known when the Supreme Judicial Court will act on the 2012 and 2013 complaints or when the Judicial Responsibility and Disability Committee may act on the new complaint.


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