ALFRED — Elected York County Judge of Probate Robert M.A. Nadeau believes York County government isn’t funding enough court days, given the volume of work.

County officials call it a manufactured crisis – manufactured, County Manager Greg Zinser alleges, by Nadeau himself in a bid for more court time and the heftier salary to go with it.

Nadeau is a part-time probate judge, and holds court two days a week, for which he is paid about $54,000 annually. Like other Maine probate judges, he maintains a private law practice .

And while the number of new filings has been consistent with those filed in years past, Nadeau contends the basic numbers don’t tell the entire story.

“Specifically, I have witnessed a proliferation of contested, very time consuming minor guardianship, contested (yes, contested) adoption cases, and contested adult protective cases, each of which often demands several days of emotional hearings that simply must take priority over ‘routine’ matters,” Nadeau said in a recent email. As well, he said the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has sent families to the probate court for guardianship of minors in alleged unfit home environments, rather than filing their cases in the state district courts.

In the meantime, since mid-April, when Nadeau changed the days he holds court and the schedule within those days, there have been complaints from attorneys and others, like Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, that cases are being scheduled months into the future.

Mayhew was among those who expressed concern to county officials earlier this year, when, she said, adoption petitions filed in April were given court dates as far distant as February.

Nadeau has said he changed the days in which to hold court to make it more efficient. In an Oct. 29 letter to County Manager Greg Zinser, he said despite his earlier efforts he had not been able to trim down the trial backlog.

County officials want Nadeau to revert to his former schedule, but acknowledge they don’t have the statutory authority to force him to do so.

The upset over the schedule change has lingered over several months and in May, York County commissioners filed a complaint about it with the state’s Committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability.

Nadeau, who volunteered his time to perform 10 adoptions on National Adoption Day Nov. 21, a Saturday, said he’s willing to donate one Saturday morning a month to handle adoptions in cases where the parties feel the court date they had been given was not soon enough. He included some prerequisites, including that the cases be readied by the Register of Probate, and that the courthouse be opened for the sessions. He pointed out that the probate register is a salaried employee and so her Saturday attendance wouldn’t result in an additional county expense. In an email to the newspaper, he said DHHS personnel are also salaried, but that their presence is not required and that attorneys charge hourly rates for their work.

Zinser said the county stands by its established position that Nadeau revert to his former schedule.

Nadeau responded that neither Zinser nor the county commissioners had bothered to speak with him about the volume of work. He said the county has funded 64 hours of judicial time a month, with no change since 1999. Nadeau said he regularly provides about 90 hours a month, though he’s paid for 64.

Figures supplied by Register of Probate Carol Lovejoy, requested by the Journal Tribune, show the number of new cases filed over time. The figures show new files opened; Lovejoy noted that some cases require more than one hearing, and the numbers do not reflect all of what she described as “sub dockets” filed.

The figures show that in 1998, there were 1,025 new cases filed; 1,061 in 2004; 985 in 2008 and 1,059 in 2014. During that time period there were 77 cases of guardianships of minors in 1998, 142 in 2004, 123 in 2008 and 95 in 2014.

“The biggest growth in my opinion has been in the guardianship of minor cases,” said Lovejoy. “When DHHS needs to remove a child from the parents, if there is a family member who will take them, they refer them to us to get guardianship rather than going through a child protective (filing) in District Court. Since the change of court schedule this year, we have had only half of the number of adoptions filed because adoptions can be filed in any county where DHHS has an office if the child is placed by DHHS in a foster home.”

Nadeau, in an eight-page letter to Zinser in late October, said the court has been plagued by a substantial backlog, particularly for trials. He said the former Wednesday and Thursday schedule made it difficult to start and finish a trial that took more than one day, and so he switched the days to Monday and Friday. He wrote that with a handful of trial days funded each month, “it was and remains completely impossible to hear and resolve most contested cases, all of which deserve to be reasonably and promptly heard.”

Lovejoy also said there has been a significant increase in the number of formal requests for appointment of special administrators on estates due to foreclosures. She said attorneys will file a request for a special administrator so that the foreclosure proceedings in district court can move forward.

Nadeau said he made changes because there were too many cases “crammed” onto the court’s non-trial docket prior to the scheduling change, making it difficult for him, in his words, “to find time to review case files to prepare for scheduled hearings and rule on 50 to 60 new unscheduled motions and other matters each week.”

He wrote that he is continuing to evaluate scheduling protocols, and has reduced some file review time to address additional non-trial matters. He said the court will continue to appoint referees – essentially other qualified personnel – to hear cases at county expense.

Lovejoy, for her part, estimates the court could use two or three more days a month.

Zinser, the county manager, pointed out there is “virtually no increase” in new cases filed.

“In order to make his case, he is mingling uncontested and contested and routine matters,” said Zinser. He pointed out hearings are time-stamped and that some matters, like a name change, require only a quick review. Zinser said Nadeau schedules one per 30 minute interval when such matters take, as evidenced by the time stamp, 10 minutes.

Zinser said the public should not confuse the probate court with the probate registry. The court, he said, is Nadeau, as judge.

Nadeau ordered the schedule change by email a few minutes after midnight April 15, after his bid for more court time and a substantially larger salary – three days at $90,000 or full-time at $120,000 – was rejected by the county.

He is steadfast in his belief that the volume of work is such that he needs more time. In a recent email, he put it this way:

“One cannot practically decide a collection of cases requiring up to 20 days of monthly trial time and to have adequate time thereafter to research, write, proofread and finalize decisions resulting from those trials when the county will only pay for 8 days of court time per month and where 3 of those days must be dedicated to initial appearance matters,” Nadeau said.

Zinser said he and county commissioners feel otherwise.

“The methods he’s using are less than desirable,” Zinser said of Nadeau’s approach to the matter. “And we lack the statutory authority to tell him what to do.”

Nadeau at one point included a phrase on some court documents that referred court clients to the county commissioner in their district if they had concerns about scheduling and court time.

Commissioners maintain the scheduling change is retaliation for their refusal to fund more court time.

Zinser said the county had no other recourse than to hold a hearing, as it did in October, and issue the recommendation that the schedule be reversed, as well as taking the issue to the judicial board.

There is no word on the status of the complaint.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently heard oral arguments in other matters brought by the Committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability regarding allegations of other misdeeds by Nadeau. A ruling on those issues could come at any time.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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