Maine State of the Judiciary: “the nuts and bolts of delivering justice”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley gave  the Maine State of the Judiciary on March 24. The Chief Justice’s speech was given to a Joint Convention of the House and Senate, with the state’s governor present, making Maine one of at least five states where all three branches were present for the state of the judiciary (the five where the Governor was identified by name were AlabamaNew Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming).

On March 24, the Senate adopted Senate Order 13

Ordered, that a message be sent to the House of Representatives proposing a Convention of the two branches of the Legislature be held at 11:00 this morning in the Hall of the House for the purpose of extending to the Honorable Leigh Ingalls Saufley, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, and members of the Judiciary, an invitation to attend and request the Chief Justice make such communication as pleases her.

Highlights of the the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

We are all charged with remembering that the very first purpose of Maine’s Constitution is “to establish justice.” The collegial and collaborative efforts of Maine’s separate branches of government have made all the difference in our capacity to establish justice during these last many hard economic years, and your attention to your constituents’ justice-related needs means that scarce resources are used for the very best value we can obtain.

INTRODUCTION

I must begin my presentation by reminding us all that the Maine Judicial Branch has been substantially underfunded for decades…But the fact remains that there are too few positions—far fewer positions as compared to other states—to complete the work before us. However, I am not going to dwell on these challenges today. Nor am I going to spend time today talking about some of the recent and most uplifting aspects of the delivery of justice, such as the improvements in Juvenile Justice, or the new evidence-based practices in criminal law that hold promise for reducing community risk and recidivism through focused interventions, such as mental health courts, drug courts, and improved monitoring capacities. Instead, I am going to take advantage of this 10th Anniversary of my presentations to you to talk about the nuts and bolts of delivering justice.

CONTEXT

In 1976, the 107th Maine Legislature took steps to create an administratively efficient court structure. In what was a visionary move, the Legislature consolidated all three components of the state court systems under one single administration, reducing duplication of staff and improving flexibility in the use of judicial resources. It is important to understand that many states have not yet completed that step, leaving State, County, and sometimes even municipal governments to pay for the overlapping costs of the courts.

A DECADE AGO

So, ten years ago when I first spoke to you from this podium, I set out several goals designed to take advantage of the efficient administrative structure of our State Courts, to consolidate further, and to make the system more responsive to the public’s changing needs. Among those goals were the following: First: Secure the Courts. At that time, we had no system of entry screening whatsoever. Second: Take advantage of the single administrative system to balance and improve the allocation of judicial resources to assure that priority cases, including those involving children, violence, and sexual assault were reached quickly and resolved more promptly. Third: Consistent with efforts to consolidate and streamline, address the aging and expensive infrastructure of Maine’s courthouses. Fourth: Make better use of technology to reduce staffing needs, improve record keeping, and provide much more prompt public service.

A DECADE OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS

In the last ten years, we have accomplished many of those goals. First, regarding security, we have worked consistently, some of you might say stubbornly, to improve safety in our courthouses, and with your help, we have made substantial progress. Second, regarding resource allocations, in 2003, the Judicial Resource Team, led by Justice Levy, created an entirely new approach to case management and scheduling…In the last several years, we have built on those lessons by further reengineering specific dockets.  Third, over the last ten years we set about to streamline the court’s infrastructure.  Our use of technology has also expanded substantially. Although we do not yet have electronic filing, which is one of our ultimate goals, we have achieved several major steps forward.

CURRENT STATUS

Looking back over these last ten years, we have worked hard to keep our eye on our goals and move forward, notwithstanding the resource limitations. Unfortunately, the challenges of understaffing have taken their toll on the public. The bottom line is that the limited number of staff and judges simply cannot do all of the work that is generated.

THE NEXT DECADE

As we move ahead, in addition to continued progress in security, technology, and consolidations, we will be focusing on several substantive areas that require attention.

  • Business Litigation One of our goals must be to provide better public service for our business communities. There are three areas that need help: Complex Claims…Small Claims… And third, we must simplify and reduce the costs for those civil cases that are too big to be filed as small claims, and not large enough to qualify for the complex Business and Consumer Docket.
  • Access to Justice One last cautionary note for the decade to come. We must all work to improve the availability of legal services for vulnerable Maine people who cannot afford an attorney when they are confronted with urgent legal problems including those involving their children, their homes, or, in the face of domestic violence, their very lives.

VISION

And so, as we prepare for progress, we must keep our eye on the very specific vision of justice we have set out for Maine. I’m going to take the last few minutes to describe some of our most important goals for the decade ahead.

  1. First, our court facilities will be physically accessible to everyone and will be safe from dangerous weapons.
  2. All cases will be heard promptly, because every case type is a priority for the people involved.
  3. Support for access to justice will be strong and deep.
  4. Jury trials will be readily accessible.
  5. Finally, electronic information systems will substantially improve public service.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

  • First, support the Governor’s budget for the Judicial Branch.
  • Second, come to our courthouses, watch justice in action, and give us your Feedback.
  • And finally, if you find extra money, send it on to us. We promise to make the very best use of every dollar you find.