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Maine Chief Justice: Convert Courts to E-Filing System
02/25/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine's chief justice says the state courts need a major cash infusion to bring the system into the 21st century. Chief Justice Leigh Saufley says the courts could become exponentially more efficient by converting the current paper filing system to an e-filing model. During her State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature, Saufley thanked Gov. Paul LePage, who is backing a $15 million bond to pay for the electronic upgrades. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Originally Aired: 2/25/2014 12:00 PM

From their quizzical expressions, it was clear that even some of the most established geeks in the Maine Legislature had no idea what Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley was talking about when she began lamenting the limitations of COBOL. But Saufley told lawmakers that's why it's time to discard a system that hasn't been cutting edge in Maine since Eisenhower was president.

"COBOL is a programming language that was designed first in 1959, decades before I was born - keeping in mind, that I am not under oath this morning," Saufley said, provoking laughter. "It is, at any rate, the horse and buggy of programming - it needs to be replaced."

During her 27-minute presentation, Saufley repeated a number of perennial requests: that Maine needs more judges and that the court employees who work for them deserve a better salary.

But the thrust of her remarks dealt with the more clerical operations of a system that still relies on paper, in an era when many other states are largely electronic. And Saufley says there are more issues at stake than the obvious efficiencies that e-filing would bring.

"Five million new pieces of paper flow into the clerk's offices, files, filing cabinets, boxes and storage," Saufley said. "The sorting and storage of paper files has filled our courthouses and the state's archives to capacity and beyond. Storage challenges create safety hazards and they cost an increasing amount of the taxpayers' dollars. There's no end in sight - unless we move to digital files."

That's not an easy undertaking. But the chief justice has a major financial supporter: Republican Gov. Paul LePage - who has threatened to not issue voter-approved bonds if Democrats tap the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund - has introduced a bill that would provide up to $15 million in bonding for revamping the court filing system.

Saufley urged lawmakers to support the bill: "Without your approval this year, we can't move forward with the plans," she said. "Without your approval this session, we will be another year or more behind in the progress toward dramatically improved public service and public safety."

"I think we do need to get the judiciary updated, a computer, just like in the Legislature. I think folks that are seeking access to it really need to be brought into the 21st century," says Sen. John Tuttle.

As a member of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, Democratic state Sen. John Tuttle, of Sanford, says he's heard the complaints before about the state courts' antiquated filing process. But he agrees with the timing of the governor's funding proposal, even while expressing some surprise that LePage is advocating borrowing by the taxpayers.

The governor's bill was also an eye opener for House Democratic Leader Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham. "I'm all for encouraging the governor to change his mind on things," Berry said. "I think he's made the right decision in this case, and I hope he'll make that in other cases as well."

Chief Justice Saufley says the courts are facing a flood of drug-related cases. She says in three years, the number of incidents involving drug-related child intervention have nearly doubled to address the needs of nearly 1,000 families.

Meanwhile, Saufley says, more than 1,700 new drug trafficking cases were handled during the last fiscal year.

Ed Morin contributed reporting to this story.


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