February 21, 2013

Legislators urged to get Maine's courts into digital age

Paper files in Maine courts no longer quaint; digital files could save lives

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Chief Justice Leigh Saufley on Thursday urged legislators “to bring the courts into the digital age,” saying the Maine’s antiquated paper-based court records system soon needs an electronic conversion that will cost millions of dollars.

Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley gestures during her annual State of the Judiciary address, Thursday, at the State House in Augusta.

AP photi

Maine Judicial Branch by the numbers

• 38 courthouses
• 491 employees
• $54 million annual budget
• 140,000 cases were filed in fiscal 2012, plus more than 101,000 new traffic infractions

Source: Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley

“The persistence of paper files in Maine courts is no longer quaint; it is a serious impediment to the delivery of justice,” Saufley told legislators in her annual State of the Judiciary speech.

At a news conference after the presentation, Saufley said “the public expects to be able to see and hear and learn information online.”

While access to federal court filings is available online at a price of 8 cents per page, the state court system has no equivalent system to allow the people to read or file documents electronically.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Donald Alexander said that when the state courts looked at electronic filing in 2008, “the capital cost then was $4 million” and that did not include funding for training or personnel and other items.

Saufley said the planning phase of the e-filing court system will launch in the 2014 fiscal year without the need for new funding. After that initial design phase, Saufley said she will work with the governor “to find a way to fund this critical investment.”

“Your support will get us on the road to the new world,” she said.

Saufley said another hurdle for the state courts is that 70 percent to 80 percent of state civil cases are filed by plaintiffs themselves rather than by attorneys.

In advances against domestic violence, Saufley said, “Protection-from-abuse orders will soon be available electronically in law enforcement officers’ cars and can be served immediately, in the community, on the offender.”

She cited figures from Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who watched the speech from the gallery, showing that 11 of Maine’s 25 homicides in 2012 were classified as related to domestic violence.

“It will be a good year when I can stand here and report that the attorney general says no lives were taken as a result of domestic violence in the state of Maine,” Saufley said.

In her speech, Saufley paid tribute to all those in the House chamber who have been jurors and introduced one of those who served recently, Eva Green, of Waterville, who was watching from the gallery.

Green, 67, later said she was chosen as a juror on three criminal cases, one of which was later dismissed and two of which resulted in verdicts of guilty.

“I was very nervous about it from the beginning,” Green said, but added that as the cases proceeded, her interest grew. “I really enjoyed it mentally, especially deciphering how the two different lawyers tried to outsmart one another.”

Saufley also made a pitch to get jurors like Green an increase in mileage reimbursement, telling legislators that the current 14 cents per mile is unfair, considering the state reimbursement rate is 44 cents per mile.

Saufley spoke about good results from consolidating the district and superior court dockets in Cumberland and Penobscot counties.

“The time from initial charges to final resolution of some of the most serious cases has been cut in half,” she said, adding that Somerset, Franklin, Piscataquis and Sagadahoc counties are next.

Turning her attention to Kennebec County, she noted that a new Kennebec County courthouse, now under construction about a half-mile from the State House, will consolidate three courts into one.

“The result will be a safe, modern courthouse that will stand for justice in Maine’s capital for the next hundred years,” Saufley said.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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