AUGUSTA – If the courts must cut spending by 5 percent, a possibility raised by Democratic leaders of the Legislature, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley says it will mean closing courts and laying off court staff, mostly in rural Maine.

“I will tell you this feels like cutting the football team, because it will reduce access to justice in rural Maine,” Saufley said. “I certainly am not proposing these cuts.”

At a meeting Tuesday with members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee to explain her supplemental budget request, Saufley found herself explaining what a 5 percent cut would do to the judicial branch.

All state agencies have been asked by Senate President Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport, and House Speaker John Richardson, D-Brunswick, to identify how they would achieve the goal of cutting 5 percent of the budgets. That level of cuts would generate enough savings to eliminate the controversial borrowing portion of the recently passed two-year state budget.

Saufley protested that any cuts will seriously hurt the ability of Mainers to get justice.

“There are some areas of our budget that we simply can’t cut,” Saufley said. “So that means more of an impact (in other areas) than an across-the-board cut.”

For example, she said, the approximately $12 million for court-appointed counsel is for services required by the Constitution. She said the Constitution also bans reducing a judge’s pay. The budget for the courts for the year starting July 1 is approximately $56.5 million.

“We have been looking at what we would do if we were forced to make this sort of cut in our budget,” she said. “Let me make it clear from the outset, that I don’t like or support any of these ideas.”

Saufley said the most likely plan would involve closing smaller courts with the smallest caseloads and consolidating services into larger courts. She said reaching the goal of $3 million a year in cuts will mean closing about 10 of the state’s 40 courthouses and laying off 40 to 45 court workers.

Particularly hard hit, she said, would be rural areas of the state. For example, it is likely either the Lincoln or Millinocket district courts would be closed, with residents required to travel “a considerable” distance to the court that remains open.

Members of the committee expressed concern over the impact of the cuts. Rep. Deborah Pelletier-Simpson, D-Auburn, said the courts are woefully underfunded and that further cuts are not warranted. She wondered how much longer lawyers will be willing to take cases as court-appointed counsel when the fee does not even cover expenses.

“I was struck by the $50 an hour for lawyers,” she said, “I know my lawyer won’t work for less than $175 an hour.”

A detailed report on how the courts would meet the 5 percent cut is due by next week.

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