Two people walk toward the entrance of the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta on Wednesday. Extra judges are taking up hundreds of cases in Kennebec County in a two-week blitz aimed at reducing the backlog that has built up since the pandemic. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — A court “blitz” is on at the Capital Judicial Center, with hundreds of cases being taken up over two weeks by extra judges in hopes of finally eliminating, or at least reducing, a backlog of cases clogging the courts since the coronavirus pandemic.

Several active retired judges have come in to work with defense lawyers and state prosecutors in dispositional conferences to see if plea deals can be made to resolve cases, especially misdemeanor cases, without the time and expense of going to trial.

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said during the two-week blitz every single active Kennebec County case her office has pending will be the topic of a dispositional conference before a judge.

Currently the courts in Kennebec County have 2,343 cases pending, 1,658 of them misdemeanor cases, and 638 of them felony cases, according to Maine Judicial Branch statistics. That’s 67% more total cases than the pre-pandemic year of 2019, when there were 1,403 cases, including 1,046 misdemeanor cases and 308 felony cases.

Cases began to pile up when the courts shut down in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and delays continued even when the courts reopened due to safety concerns and precautions taken to prevent the spread of the virus.

Maloney said part of the goal is to free up courtrooms and court staff to hold trials on serious felony-level cases by resolving as many lower-level misdemeanor cases in plea agreements, in which defendants are generally offered a reduced sentence in exchange for pleading guilty and not going to trial.


‘We’re looking to resolve the lower-level cases as much as we can in order to free up space on the court calendar for felony cases that need to be tried,” said Maloney during a brief break in the courtroom action Tuesday. “My hope is we’ll at least bring it back to the (caseload) numbers we had in 2016-2017, or 2017-2018.”

Maloney said 2019 was a year with a much lower caseload than most years, so aiming to return the number of pending cases back to 2019 numbers may be unrealistic.

Judge Brent Davis, left, and defense attorney Justin French talk about one of French’s blitz-week cases Wednesday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

She said having a judge get together with both sides of a case can help push it toward resolution. While she declined to specify whether a defendant is likely to get a better plea deal offer during the blitz, she did acknowledge that if a judge makes a recommendation on a way to resolve a case, a prosecutor would be more likely to go ahead with an offer based on the judge’s recommendation.

Augusta defense attorney Walter McKee, who is on the boards of directors for the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Maine Trial Lawyers Association, said the blitz is a good idea and likely the only way the backlog of cases is ever going to go away.

“The blitz is a court effort to call in as many cases as possible to see if, with the help of experienced judges, cases that have been lingering on the docket can be resolved once and for all,” McKee said. “The pressure to settle cases on the blitz list is nothing more than the court helping each side understand the strengths and weaknesses of their cases, and when it comes to the prosecutors there is special attention to an assessment of just how critically important it is that each case be tried.”

McKee said he’s had clients waiting months and sometimes years for their cases to be heard since the pandemic.


“It is as bad as it has ever been,” he said of the backlog of cases. “Some prosecutors have talked about declining numbers, but it is clear to anyone who looks at the numbers that the case numbers are terrible.”

Maloney said one of the active retired judges helping out in the blitz, Superior Court Justice Roland Cole, told her “If you can get everyone in one room together, there is not a single case that can’t be resolved.”

A similar blitz at the courthouse in Androscoggin County last month, where cases from Franklin and Oxford counties were also heard, resolved hundreds of cases, officials there reported.

District Attorney Neil McLean Jr. told Androscoggin County commissioners the caseload in the three counties that are part of that prosecutorial district was at 2,700 cases, with 1,800 selected for its blitz.

McLean said more than half, 956 cases, of the 1,800 cases presented were resolved. He said 792 resulted in pleas and 164 were dismissed, with most of the dismissals in cases in which defendants were facing multiple charges.

But cases can’t be resolved if defendants don’t show up and thus aren’t there to discuss any potential deals with their attorney. On Tuesday, the first day of the Kennebec County blitz, numerous cases were called only to not move forward because defendants weren’t present. Some defendants who didn’t show up had failure to appear warrants issued for their potential arrest, while others had their cases rescheduled.


Maloney said it was frustrating that so many defendants did not show up.

Multiple defense lawyers said they couldn’t reach the defendants they were appointed to represent.

While Maloney declined to show her hand on whether defendants might get better plea deals during the blitz, McKee said it appeared that had been the case elsewhere where court blitzes had taken place.

Defense attorney Justin French, left, and assistant district attorneys go through blitz week cases before Judge Brent Davis on Wednesday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“If what has happened in other counties is any guide, I expect that there will be better offers than have been made previously,” he said. “They better be, because if they are not, my cases will not be resolved.”

The courts are working through cases one lawyer at a time. For example, all Tuesday afternoon, they took up cases for dozens of defendants represented by Augusta defense attorney Darrick Banda. His clients lingered in the courthouse hallway while he met in judge’s chambers and negotiated on their cases.

Cases that reached agreement were then heard in court that day, with several defendants, over the course of the day, pleading guilty and being sentenced on the spot. A few cases, involving felonies, were not resolved but were scheduled for jury selection, to move on to trial.

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