The Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. After using money from the CARES Act to upgrade technology,  courtrooms are now equipped with "Zoom carts" that allow people to appear remotely to help keep them safe during the pandemic. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A new study concluded Maine’s court system needs nine additional judges and 40 more clerks to efficiently deliver justice to Mainers.

“Additional judges, justices, magistrates and clerks are needed to enable Maine’s District and Superior Court judiciary and clerk’s offices to manage and resolve court business effectively and without delay while also delivering quality service to the public,”  the report said.

Maine has 64 judge positions — 16 Superior Court justices, 37 District Court judges, eight family law judges — and 245 court clerk positions. The report commissioned by the Maine Judicial Branch found the state needs 73 judges and 285 clerks and recommended lawmakers fund the new positions. The report did not include an estimate of how much that might cost.

Nine new judges at the current salary of $145,642 per year would cost the state an additional $1.3 million annually. A clerk’s starting salary is about $27,000 per year, so 40 clerks would increase the budget by another $1 million annually. Neither figure includes the cost of the state employees pension plan, health care and other benefits.

The workload study underscores Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill’s concerns outlined in her annual address to lawmakers about the need for more staff to deal with the pandemic backlog of cases. She called the system “frail” in March, the Maine Monitor reported.

The judiciary has asked lawmakers to fund five more judge positions and 13 new court clerk positions, Barbara Cardone, spokesperson for the court system, said Tuesday.

“The new positions we’re asking for are far less than the number the report said were needed,” she said. “We don’t know yet if they are going to be funded.”

The Maine Judicial Branch contracted with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, to perform the comprehensive study of the workload for Maine trial court justices, judges, magistrates and clerks. It was conducted last fall.

About 94 percent of judges and clerks participated in the study, an unusually high response, the report said. A majority of judges said they did not have enough time on a regular basis to get their work done.

Overall, 31 percent of District Court judges, 36 percent of Superior Court justices, and 43 percent of family law magistrates who responded to the survey said that they had sufficient time, on a regular basis, to get their work done. The percentage of judges who said that they had sufficient time to effectively handle case-related activities varied by case type and type of judge.

Magistrate judges are hired, rather than appointed by the governor, and handle family matters.

In criminal matters, 72 percent of District Court judges said they had sufficient time, while 32 percent of Superior Court justices said they have enough time to handle criminal cases, the report found. When it came to civil cases, 51 percent of District Court judges and 24 percent of Superior Court justices said they had enough time for them. In handling family and juvenile cases, just 40 percent of District Court judges and 29 percent of family law magistrates reported having sufficient time to handle cases efficiently.  

The report also recommended how many more judges are needed in each of the state’s prosecutorial districts. District 3, made up of Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, has eight judges but needs 11. Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, District 5, need one more judge while the midcoast, District 6, needs 1.5 more judges and Aroostook County could use two additional judges. York and Cumberland county need an additional 1.5 judges each.

Court clerks reported even lower percentages for completing tasks in a timely manner. Just 28 percent said they were usually able to meet deadlines without rushing at the last minute. Only 21 percent said the pace at which they work is sustainable and just 1 percent said they are able to get their work done with minimal interruptions, the report said. The report said that 14 percent of clerks said they had sufficient time, on a regular basis, to get their work done.

The study found that Penobscot County has 28 clerks but needs 38 to run efficiently while Kennebec County needs seven more, Androscoggin County needs five more and Aroostook County needs four. Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, and Piscataquis counties each need one more clerk or a part-time clerk to run effectively.

York and Cumberland counties need three additional clerks each, the report said. Only Franklin County with six court clerk positions is sufficiently staffed

The report, which could be redone in three years, concluded that clerks are forced to decide which tasks are essential to the operation of the court. That means file management and customer service are sacrificed when clerks find it difficult to manage their workloads.