Justice Andrew Mead speaks at a hearing at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta in this 2017 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine courts have pushed many non-criminal matters into next year or later so they can start clearing a backlog of 8,800 criminal cases that the state’s acting chief justice called “staggering.”

The delay in holding civil trials could help the court system chip away at the criminal case backlog that has grown 240 percent in less than a year. But some lawyers say delaying civil cases because they’re not considered emergency matters risks depriving Maine people of a legal forum for settling disputes.

The state’s courts shut down in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic for all matters except motions in criminal, child protection, protection from harassment and abuse, and mental health matters.

That judicial order was later extended through the end of June, with eviction hearings allowed to resume in July and some criminal jury trials in September.

The courts had been expected to return to near normal operations at the start of next week while limiting the number of people who could gather on each floor of courthouses and using technology to hold remote hearings whenever possible.

But with the delay in civil proceedings, money judgments, disclosures, small claims, land use violations and other civil matters will not be scheduled or heard before 2021, the court system said this week. Foreclosures will not be scheduled or heard before Feb. 28, 2021.

Only criminal, not civil, jury trials will be held, said Andrew Mead, acting chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, who called the backlog of criminal cases “staggering.”

Many of the defendants in those cases are being held in county jails unable to post bail.

Mead said he did not know how long it would take for the courts to deal with the criminal case backlog as judges continue to deal with emergency matters. Courts will likely be slower in holding jury trials as the pandemic continues because those trials now require two courtrooms to allow for social distancing — one where the trial takes place and one where jurors deliberate because jury deliberation rooms are too small to allow people to sit 6 feet away from each other. The Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor and the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta appear to be the only two Maine courthouses that are large enough and have enough staff to hold two jury trials simultaneously.

“Cases that involve risks of people being hurt or killed or that involve constitutionally protected liberty interests are at the top of the list,” Mead said. “At present, with our limited resources, the higher-level priority cases are essentially filling the dockets. Despite our best efforts, lower-priority matters that often involve civil disputes simply cannot be scheduled until well into 2021, if not later. We cannot predict with any degree of certainty when that might be.”

Thaddeus Day of Portland, president of the Maine State Bar Association, and Christian Lewis of Lewiston, president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, said that their members are concerned about how long civil trials could be delayed. Before COVID-19 struck, it took two or three years from the time an initial complaint was filed for a trial to be set.

“As these delays continue, we grow more and more concerned about the rule of law,” Day said. “If we can’t provide Maine people with a forum for settling their disputes, it could start to erode the foundations of our democracy.”

Lewis said he and other civil litigators are frustrated about the delays but are working with judges and court staff to find creative solutions to moving civil cases through the system.

“Everybody understands that what is going on is not normal,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the criminal case backlog was made up of felony cases. The 8,800 cases are a mix of misdemeanor and felony cases.