The allegations against York County Judge of Probate Robert M.A. Nadeau, reported last month and last week in this newspaper, furnish ample proof of the need to reform Maine’s probate courts by replacing part-time, elected probate judges with full-time Maine District or Superior Court judges.

Maine is fortunate in its reputable and efficient statewide district and superior courts, with full-time professional judges appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Maine Senate. Maine’s county probate courts, on the other hand, with part-time, elected lawyer-judges, constitute an obsolete remnant of 19th-century judicial institutions that has not seen the light of 20th-century reform.

A system of part-time judges who must run for their offices in periodic political contests is a dangerous anomaly, sure to lead to scandals such as the current one in York County. The limited jurisdiction of the probate courts could be efficiently and economically exercised within the framework of our existing full-time court systems, providing better service to the public without the risks of abuse that are inherent with part-time elected judicial officials.

It takes little imagination to see the potential for abuse by judges who must seek campaign contributions from the very lawyers and litigants who will appear before them. Justice itself is brought into disrepute when probate judges make decisions and appointments that are seen to favor their campaign supporters.

The potential for confusion between part-time judges’ official roles and their private practices is also evident. Part-time probate judges are continuously tempted to use their judicial status as a public seal of approval for their private practices. This apparently was at the root of some of the problems in York County.

Conflicts of interest are inevitable. The practice that permits a probate judge to appear in contested probate matters before his or her colleagues in adjacent counties gives a nasty appearance of impropriety that persists. Lawyers are intimidated in their dealings with colleagues who are also probate judges for fear of retaliation when they have to appear before them in other matters.

Scheduling and performance of judicial functions can be affected by the scheduling and work demands of a judge’s private practice. Local political power or adroit campaigning can place marginally qualified candidates in office and get them re-elected even after being officially disciplined.

Unlike the statewide district and superior courts, the probate courts are creatures of county government and are financed by local real estate taxes. This structure allows for arbitrary differences in pay for probate judges and their staffs, in time committed to judicial duties and in court facilities among Maine’s 16 counties.

The quality of probate justice for Maine’s citizens ultimately depends on the fiscal generosity of the respective counties and the priorities of county government. Conferring probate jurisdiction on our existing statewide and state-financed courts will even out the quality of probate justice statewide and will help relieve the chronically overburdened local real estate tax base.

There have been many previous proposals to reform the probate courts. Until now, Maine’s 16 probate judges have effectively lobbied to defeat or divert all such efforts. For a time they could claim the protection of Article 6, Section 6 of the Maine Constitution. However, in 1967, this constitutional provision was repealed, “effective at such time as the Legislature, by proper enactment, shall establish a different Probate Court system with full-time judges.”

A new probate system with full-time judges would not necessarily require additional financial appropriations to establish new judgeships. The full-time judges of the district or superior courts could be vested with jurisdiction to handle probate matters. Court facilities, and to some extent court staffs, could be shared. Fee income from probate filings, along with efficiencies in the use of judicial staff and facilities, could more than cover the cost.

So it is up to the Legislature. Change is always hard, but in this instance, it is seriously overdue. There is no reputable case that can be made for continuance of this dubious relic. Now is the time for our lawmakers to act and do what needs to be done.

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