A massive court backlog has been one of Maine’s biggest public policy side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this year, the state’s top judge called the judicial system “frail” and said courts may not be able to touch backlogs by 2028, even with new judges set to be appointed. It is leading to concessions in cases, with the district attorney handling the child pornography case of former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler saying backlogs were a factor in his plea deal.
Lawmakers recently raised pay for lawyers in a long-embattled system that handles court appointments for low-income defendants after years of shrinking rosters.
Among the bigger effects are on the civil liberties of defendants. The state is already facing a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine over the indigent legal system, saying it has deprived people of their rights to speedy trials.
The ACLU of Maine is also leading a bipartisan bill that would set trial deadlines based on the seriousness of the charges. The measure, backed by Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, who chairs the judiciary panel, would force the court system to hold trials six months from first appearances in felony cases and 45 days in misdemeanor cases, with some exceptions including agreements between prosecutors and defense teams.
If trials do not happen by the deadline, cases would be dismissed under the proposal. Defense lawyers pushing for the measure say that is really the only way to enforce the new deadlines and clear backlogs of thousands of cases.
“Something has to change, and this bill would do it,” Augusta-based lawyer Walter McKee, who defended Cutler, wrote in testimony for the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.
The effectiveness of any effort to speed up cases is really on the Legislature and other levels of government that are going to have to support the court system if it is to plow through the backlog. A commission that advises the Legislature criticized the bill for “unrealistic deadlines” and noted police, court systems and prosecutors would need more staff to comply.
Of course, this means more money. Moonen’s bill has a diverse list of sponsors from progressive Democrats to Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, a libertarian-leaning conservative. It may show a willingness for the Legislature to solve this problem, but it is going to take a complex strategy.