Peter L. Murray


The recent mandate to all organs of Maine state government to make major budget cuts in a time of international economic distress has focused attention on the fiscal and operational condition of Maine’s Judicial Branch. A symposium on March 30, 2009 at the University of Southern Maine presented various perspectives on the role of Maine’s judiciary as the twenty-first century unfolds, and the need for adequate resources to maintain the Judicial Branch as a vital and functioning branch of our tripartite system of government. It is clear that much of the challenge faced by our Judicial Branch is that of educating Maine’s politicians, citizens, and constituencies on the vital role of Maine’s courts and the importance of prioritizing funds to enable the Judicial Branch to do its work. On the other hand, sometimes a focus on lack of resources can divert attention from serious structural issues in Maine’s judicial system. We are blessed with a judiciary of high integrity, competence, and industry. Many aspects of Maine’s judicial function are modern and well suited to the tasks at hand. But there are also respects in which Maine’s judicial establishment has retained forms and institutions that better reflect values, technology, and political realities of the nineteenth century than those of the twenty-first. There is an urgent need for reform of some of these outdated elements of our justice system—not only to make the system more efficient, but also to provide Maine’s citizens with a better quality of justice. The purpose of this Article is to remind us of three reforms to Maine’s judicial establishment that are indeed overdue and to encourage us to push hard to bring all aspects of Maine’s court operations into the twenty-first century. First of all, the basic tiered structure of our courts of first instance, district, superior and probate, is a relic of the nineteenth century. The movement to unify these courts that began in the 1990s should be brought to its logical conclusion with the creation of a single Maine Trial Court. Second, the Maine county probate courts with part-time elected judges comprise an embarrassing anomaly in a system otherwise free of judicial elections and part-time judges. The probate judges should be phased out and the new Maine Trial Court should exercise probate jurisdiction. Third, Maine’s system of appellate justice, with only one true appellate court, has long been under stress because of overstretched resources. It is time to reorganize existing judicial resources to include an intermediate appellate court that can provide quality appellate review in the general run of cases and thus permit the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, to focus on guiding the work of the Judicial Branch and on hearing and deciding cases of unusual significance. The foregoing structural reforms should bring the structure of the Maine judicial system into the first rank of modern American judicial systems. The need for reform, however, does not stop here. The operations and practices of our civil and criminal courts were originally developed at a time when Maine’s citizens traveled on foot and horseback, when writing was done with quill pen on paper, and when oral discussion could take place only in the immediate vicinity of all the participants. Those days are long past. Developments in travel, information handling, and communications have rendered many of the operational practices of Maine’s civil and criminal justice systems obsolete and inefficient. The structural reforms urged herein must be complemented by a rigorous overhaul of operations before we get a court system that will serve Maine’s citizens efficiently and well under twenty-first century conditions.

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