The Maine House and Senate gather Wednesday at the Maine State House in Augusta for the annual State of the Judiciary address. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Maine courts still need more judges, clerks and other staff to address thousands of open civil and criminal cases, even with modest improvements made over the last year.

In her annual State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said the court system cannot move forward without more staff and funding for modern technology.

Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill told lawmakers Wednesday that the court system needs more state investment to solve a serious backlog in civil and criminal cases. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Wednesday’s speech on the House floor comes as various players in the judicial system are all facing their own crises. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has asked lawmakers to commit to fund new public defense offices as it struggles to find private attorneys who can represent low-income defendants. Advocates for victims of violent crimes are at risk of losing roughly 60% of their funding – though the governor’s pending supplemental budget includes $6 million to close the gap.

And the courts themselves are still working to resolve roughly 40% to 45% more pending criminal cases than there were in 2019 before the state delayed various court events, including trials, because of COVID-19. Stanfill told lawmakers that’s an improvement from last year, when pending cases were 60% higher than pre-pandemic numbers. She cited blitz events during which district attorneys have focused on clearing as many cases in a week as they could to reduce the backlog.

But those are only short-term fixes and Stanfill said the courts are often putting off other important cases, including complicated felonies and child custody disputes.

“The sobering fact is that no matter how hard we work – and we do – we are not providing timely and safe resolution even in priority cases, those involving liberty, families and children,” Stanfill said.



Last year, the chief justice said, she asked for nine new judges and 40 more clerks in the biennial budget after the National Center for State Courts found that Maine needed at least that many new positions to process the state’s current caseloads.

But not all of those positions were funded. Stanfill didn’t provide exact numbers in her address, but said some new judges were added and newly approved clerks will begin work on July 1.

She also warned against any further increases to fines and fees to pay for these positions.

“You asked us to raise the money ourselves by tacking on surcharges on filing fees, fines and the like. And we did that,” Stanfill said.

The state increased taxes on traffic tickets, she said, but the number of tickets being issued is down. And often, they’re being given to the people who can least afford them, she said.


“There are still many gaps in our judicial branch, and many needs that cannot be paid for with a tax on fines,” Stanfill said.


In her supplemental budget proposal last week, Gov. Janet Mills included roughly $3.7 million in 2024 and 2025 to continue the state’s work to transition all court filings to an electronic system.

Maine is one of only a few states where court files are almost exclusively available in person and on paper. The state has struggled several times to launch an e-filing system. Its latest attempt last year had a rocky start, Stanfill said, but ended up being what she considers one of the branch’s greatest achievements.

Files are now available online for some civil cases in the Bangor District and Penobscot Superior Court, and the statewide Business and Consumer Docket. The system is also up and running for family, civil and child protective cases in Lewiston and Auburn courts.

Stanfill said the court system hopes to add some cases in Rumford, Farmington and South Paris in about a month, and then later this year launch in Augusta and Waterville. They’re hoping to add protection orders in June and then start on criminal cases. It will take the state more time to move criminal files and protection orders online because they have to make sure law enforcement agencies are able to access the electronic files.


“Our goal is to have all case types in all trial courts in the Maine eCourts system by the end of 2026,” Stanfill said.


As Stanfill briefed state leaders, hundreds of low-income Mainers facing criminal charges were still waiting to be appointed an attorney. Many of those defendants are waiting in jail with their cases unable to move forward. Stanfill said there aren’t enough private and public defense attorneys available.

The judicial branch counted more than 400 cases, possibly a record high, where people were waiting for an attorney as of Wednesday. People in at least 120 of those were being held in jail, unable to make bail either because it wasn’t an option or they couldn’t afford it.

Stanfill echoed concerns she shared last year calling this a “constitutional crisis.” She said none of the initiatives enacted last year have solved the problem, including raising the reimbursement rate for attorneys willing to take court-appointed cases to $150 an hour, which is more comparable with what prosecutors earn.

Judges are responsible for appointing counsel, but Stanfill said they are constrained by state laws that delegate the responsibility of vetting and locating counsel to MCILS, which oversees a list of private attorneys and a handful of public defense attorneys.

“I hope that adding some public defenders will help, but it will be a while before we really see results,” Stanfill said. “And in the meantime, I fear the system will indeed collapse.”

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