Maine’s court system will assign retired judges to divorce proceedings to help clear a backlog of more than 6,200 family law cases pending in courthouses throughout the state.
The pilot initiative, implemented last week, will assign retired judges who volunteer to participate to divorce cases in which both parties have lawyers, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said earlier this month.
Lawyers and court clerks may request that a referee be assigned to a case, and the referee would work with the parties remotely.
“The goal is to add capacity in the short term to allow us to address the backlog without adding work to existing personnel,” Stanfill told lawmakers on March 15 in her State of the Judiciary address.
The referees would work to resolve the cases without going to trial.
So far, two retired District Court judges, Charles LaVerdierre and Paul Matthews, have agreed to act as referees.
The referee program is one effort to reduce a backlog of unresolved court cases that has grown since the start of the pandemic, as COVID-19 initially forced Maine courts to drastically curtail their operations.
The total number of pending court cases in Maine — criminal and civil — is about 45 percent higher than before the pandemic, and there’s little hope of eliminating the backlog anytime soon, Stanfill told lawmakers.
The chief justice said she hopes to later expand the referee program to divorce cases in which people are representing themselves and to other civil cases in which jury trials are not needed.
Judges who volunteer to serve as referees would be paid the same stipend — $350 per day or $200 for half a day — that active retired judges are paid to handle other cases in the court system.
The cost of the program is not yet known, and the court system hasn’t yet determined how many cases each judge will handle, according to Alyson Cummings, who works for the administrative office of the courts.
The pilot program will last through June 2023.
“We will be monitoring the efficacy of the pilot and hope to have a sense of whether the [court system] will continue the program by early fall 2022,” Cummings said.