AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's backlog of criminal court cases remains about 60% to 65% higher than pre-pandemic levels, a stubborn figure the state has been unable to reduce over two years, the state's chief justice said Thursday.
The primary cause is the inability to hold jury trials early in the pandemic, but other factors include the opioid epidemic and mental health disorders, child protective cases, and a big increase in felony crimes, the most serious criminal cases that take longer to resolve, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill told lawmakers.
“Judicial branch employees are feeling the weight of the realization that seems no matter what we do, we can’t catch up. We can’t address our backlog. Frankly, it hurts my heart,” she said.
Stanfill used her State of the Judiciary address to the Maine Legislature to promote the governor's budget proposal that includes four new judges and more clerks and marshals.
Stanfill said she's also requesting a pay increase for judges beyond a 3% cost of living adjustment, telling lawmakers that the state's judges are among the nation's lowest.
She told lawmakers that there are many factors behind the backlog and noted that the judicial system was strained before the pandemic exacerbated the number of pending cases. Furthermore, court officials are spending a greater amount of time trying to find lawyers willing to represent indigent clients, she said.
“The pandemic was the tipping point that unmasked the reality that even before 2020, the courts and judicial system were straining to keep up with the demand of cases,” she said.
On other topics, the chief justice said the rollout of an e-filing system that was supposed to be implemented statewide last year has been delayed because of “hitches and issues" including the fact that Maine has nation's only court system using an Apple-based computer system, which must be swapped.
The Business and Consumer Court in Portland and the civil and family docket in Bangor are the only courts using the system, but the family and civil dockets in the Lewiston District Court and Androscoggin Superior Court in Auburn will be brought online later this year, she said.