AUGUSTA – The state judiciary is considering consolidating Oxford County Superior Court and 11th District Court in Paris to cut administration and overhead costs amid a budget crisis, officials said.

Sen. Dave Hastings III, R-Fryeburg, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee, said the court system is working to consolidate courts that are close to each other, such as those on Western Avenue in Paris that are separated by a parking lot.

“It makes it more efficient, given the reduction in clerks,” said Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, House chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee. “It’s much more efficient to have one clerk take care of both superior court and district court business.”

Hastings said consolidation also would allow the courts to hire security officers for only one courthouse.

“It might take six positions and make them five, but you know it’s coming over time,” Hastings said.

He said the state judicial system pays for using the courthouses, which are owned by the counties.

“It would all have to be done with the consent of the county commissioners, because it’s their property,” Hastings said.

He said the Rumford and Bridgton district courts were considered for closure, but the Courthouse Advisory Committee decided that closing any courts in the state would not be in the judicial branch’s best interest. He said rural courts provide important services, and maintaining the court infrastructure is necessary for that reason.

“Once you close a courthouse, I’m convinced that it’s never going to open again,” he said.

In a speech before the Legislature last week, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said the judicial system is in a “precarious” state. She said the use of judicial funds for constitutionally mandated criminal prosecution and child protection cases, combined with across-the-board state cuts, created a budget crisis in the system.

The only options to address the problem were closing courthouses or cutting staff, Saufley said. The judiciary has eliminated nine and a half positions and is maintaining 40 vacancies, and some courts have reduced the hours they are open to the public.

Saufley said the increase in homicide cases and the need to protect victims of violence make rural courts a necessity.

“Although the future may bring better options for distance justice through technology, until those systems are in place, closing rural courthouses will rarely be a wise choice,” she said.

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