AUGUSTA – Saying it would serve everyone better, Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley asked the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to create a business court docket in Maine’s court system to hear more business cases and expedite small claims and other cases.

The proposal would involve hiring four new judges, two of whom would travel the state specializing in hearing complex business cases full time. The other two would hear all kinds of other cases, freeing up time for small claims cases, Saufley said.

A business court docket would help businesses, some of which have given up on getting resolution from Maine’s courts, she said. Helping businesses solve disputes quicker would create a better business environment, which happened when Massachusetts created a business docket, Saufley said.

“Maine’s economy, employees, businesses and consumers will benefit substantially from a renewed focus on business and consumer-related judicial services,” she said. “Jobs and employment are crucial to the health of families. Children do better when their parents have decent jobs.”

And having two additional judges would help the overburdened court system “and allow us to return small claims, disclosures and landlord-tenant matters to rapid resolution in the trial courts,” Saufley said.

When asked how much it would cost, Maine’s top judge told lawmakers she was glad “you’re sitting down,” that the annual cost would be about $1 million to hire four new judges and staff.

“I know that’s not a small amount,” she said, adding that the court system does not have the money. It’s possible some could come from the Part II budget proposal that Gov. John Baldacci is expected to outline Friday, as well as higher court fees, she said.

Saufley emphasized that Maine is 50th in the nation in funding its court system.

Baldacci spokeswoman Joy Leach said Tuesday that the governor supports the business docket concept, but did not know whether any money would be included in his proposal on Friday.

A number of people spoke for the bill, L.D. 1518, at Tuesday’s hearing. No one spoke against.

Sponsor House Speaker John Richardson, D-Brunswick, said he’s heard a recurring theme from Maine small businesses that long delays in the court system, especially with small claims, render the system useless to some.

In the West Bath District Court, someone filing a small claims case on Feb. 18 had to wait for May 7 for the case to come up, followed by delays because the courts have little time for small claims, he said. That prompts some to not bother, and others to seek resolution in the federal courts. Both cost businesses money, Richardson said.

Not hearing businesses’ cases also means that business case law – which gives precedent and some predictability – is not being built in Maine, Richardson said. Case law would help businesses know what would likely happen in certain disputes and what the resolutions could be.

Others testifying for the bill included Kate Simmons of the Coalition to End Domestic Violence; Meris Bickford speaking for the Maine State Bar Association and the Maine Bankers Association; Jamie Kilbreth of the New England Law Foundation; and David Clough of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

In written testimony, Dana Connors of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce praised the bill, saying a business docket offers a chance to expedite small business litigation and lower legal costs, which could in turn lower Maine business costs. But Connors warned that the chamber would not back the idea if paying for it meant raising taxes.

Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, urged passage, saying people have had to wait for months for a small claims case to come to trial, and the wait time is growing. “As the old adage goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ and we have been denying justice in this area for too long,” Rotundo wrote.

The committee is scheduled to take up the bill May 16.

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