With the number of judges set by law, Maine's courts haven't been able to address the backlog.
In this Nov. 21, 2022, file photo, court clerk Cathy Stearns and Superior Court Justice William Anderson seen at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor before retiring later that month. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The court system will be able to begin addressing the huge backlog of pending cases once the Legislature completes its work this week.

The court system will be able to seat an additional Superior Court justice and three more district court judges, along with 11 more clerks and five judicial marshals. Those positions were included in Gov. Janet Mills’ budget passed in March.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a 65 percent increase in pending court cases, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill told lawmakers in her annual address in March.

Still, the new hires will not be enough additional personnel to properly address the backlog, according to a report by the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia. The comprehensive study of the workload for Maine trial court justices, judges, magistrates and clerks called for nine additional judges and 40 more clerks to address the backlog. The study was conducted last fall and released in May.

The number of judges is set in statute, and the court system’s budget is approved every two years by the Legislature, so it has not been possible for the judiciary to hire employees to address the backlog.

The statute recently was changed to increase the number of Superior Court judges from 16 to 17 and the number of District Court judges from 36 to 39. The number of Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices will remain at seven and the number of judges who handle family matters will remain at eight.

Each judge approved requires the hiring of an additional clerk and judicial marshal. Where they will be located has not been determined.

The last time a justice was added to the Superior Court was in 2006, according to court spokesperson Barbara Cardone. Two District Court positions were added in 2015, and another one was approved the following year.

There also will be four District Court judgeships open due to retirements, according to Cardone.

Maine judges also will be getting a 4.5 percent salary raise during the next fiscal year that began July 1. Salaries for Maine judges, when adjusted for inflation, are the lowest paid in the nation, according to Cardone.

It was unclear Friday whether that raise will move Maine up from the bottom of the list.

The judiciary asked lawmakers to fund five more judge positions, 13 court clerks and six judicial marshals, Cardone said last month. So far, the Legislature has agreed to fund four judges, 11 clerks and five marshals. Some are in the 2023 budget that goes into effect July 1, while others are in the budget that begins July 1, 2024.

The total cost of the new positions will not be available until the Legislature adjourns, Cardone said.