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Chief Justice: Courts Are “Poor Step Child” of Maine Government Branches

Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill

Maine’s new Chief Justice has said she plans to tackle under-funding of the state’s courts, which she describes as the “poor step child” of the branches of government.

Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill, speaking to lawyers, said: “We’re going to have to look at - in the long-term - the structure and funding of our court system in the state.

“We have traditionally in the judicial branch been the poor step child of the branches of government. We have fewer judges per population than almost every state etcetera etcetera, and I think that the stresses of the pandemic has really highlighted just how little room there is there.

“I think we’ve already asked our system to do an awful lot - so in the long term and in the big picture that’s something we have to look at as well.”

She was giving a brief presentation to members of the Maine State Bar Association in a Zoom ‘Bar Talk’ event that was recorded and is normally uploaded to the MSBA’s YouTube channel.

She spoke of “over arching” difficulties of turnover of court clerks and filling vacancies for marshalls to deal with the huge case backlog of criminal cases, as well as civil cases, because of the pandemic. Across Maine, case numbers of criminal cases are up about half as much as was the case before the pandemic.

“This is a judicial branch that was really operating at capacity before the pandemic and so as you can imagine that makes it extraordinarily difficult to try to not only do what we were doing before but to do even more at the same time.”

She said courts have been going “full bore” to deal with that criminal case backlog and it has improved in recent months as the figures bear out. No civil jury trials have been held during the pandemic. Some are expected to be scheduled for the end of February next year.

She said five district court and three superior court judge vacancies will also emerge “in a few months,” which will need to be filled by Governor Janet Mills, and she hoped that would be done “quickly.”


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