Judge of probate

Susan Longley (D-Liberty)

Oct 10, 2012
Courtesy of: Susan Longley Susan Longley

What qualifies you to serve as judge of probate?

I have served eight years (2005 - present) as Waldo County judge of probate. For two years, I also have served as president of the Maine Probate Judge Assembly and have continued to serve as a Maine Supreme Court chief justice appointee on Maine’s Probate and Trust Law Advisory Commission.

After graduation from law school, followed by a judicial clerkship to research and draft opinions for Maine’s Superior Court judges, I served eight years (1994-2002) as state senator for Waldo County. I served as chair on judicial committees responsible for writing and overseeing Maine probate and family law. Now, as a lawyer for 24 years and one who also is a licensed Maine teacher with more than 20 years of teaching experience and a licensed Maine guide, I have the multiple skills needed to help the roughly 75 percent of people appearing in Waldo County Probate Court who cannot afford a lawyer and who must find their way through the legal wilderness explained in Maine’s “Rules of Court.”

What part of the Probate Court, if any, would you change?

In my eight years as Waldo County judge of probate, I have introduced several changes, including:

Mediation: Concerned about families in a time of increasing needs and decreasing resources, I introduced and implemented a Waldo County Mediation Program. I offer families the opportunity to try mediation before litigation. As a result, most families have not only tried mediation, but also succeeded in drafting their very own agreement, also saving themselves and taxpayers thousands of dollars in litigation costs.

Adult Independence: As judge, I have piloted a program that better maximized a vulnerable adult’s independence. Building on a law from my independent father, Gov. [James] Longley’s years, I require specific information on what that adult values. If I learn that she or he values church, family, the family pet, cribbage, whatever, I then honor this person’s values in any resulting appointment order.

Monthly payment plans: When I first arrived on the bench, I learned that the appointments budget was out of control. To get this problem under control, I designed and implemented an incentive-based monthly payment system. With the well-organized assistance of the register of probate and her staff, I work with family members on a monthly payment system based on their ability to pay. I am proud to say that most pay on time and are proud of themselves for doing so. In the process, not only have I decreased this annual line item from almost $24,000 to less than $12,000, but I also have helped enable family members to succeed and have a sense of pride in their ability to pay their own way.

Child support: In my past eight years as judge of probate, Waldo County Probate Court has become a leading probate court in opting to take the time to organize child support for the children for whom guardians are appointed. As I say to these families, I want everyone who brings a child into this world to realize that Judge Longley believes that you have at the least a financial responsibility to this child, that every child needs to eat and that the parent has to help pay for the needs of the child that he/she brought into this world.

Case management: In my first year on the bench, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night concerned about a case management system overly reliant on the limited stick-on yellow post-it notes. Again, with the cooperation of those in the register of probate’s office, we now have a reliable, computerized (Excel spreadsheet) inter-office case management system where we know exactly what has happened in every single case every single step of the way.

What is your philosophy when approaching a difficult decision?

“Jurisprudence,” the philosophy of law, requires judges in litigated cases to apply the most credible facts to the law and decide the cases. For the more difficult of these cases, I inform parties that I am a reflective person who sometimes needs a bit of time to review the factual evidence and legal arguments before making a final decision. While seriously reflecting on a tough case, I also will take a walk or two or more with my dog, Gracie, and get out of the office mode. I have been told by some neighbors that they can tell when I have a difficult case based on the concerned look on my face as I walk with Gracie. In short, I have a judicial philosophy of applying the facts to the laws, having reflected on every issue down to the last detail before issuing a final decision.

How will you prioritize your duties as judge of probate with other professional commitments?

I choose to focus on one professional responsibility: serving as Waldo Country judge of probate.

What characteristics are most important in a judge of probate?

Fairness, frugality and effectiveness. I believe the most important characteristics in a judge of probate concern her/his ability to provide all parties with a fair and meaningful opportunity to be heard; to be frugal so as to save these families as much time and expense as possible, and to be effective in helping them function as families and as contributing members of our Waldo County community.

Why are you seeking to be elected judge of probate?

I am seeking re-election because I do believe that I can make my own best contribution to the Waldo County community by continuing to serve as a fair, frugal and effective judge of probate.

Should the judge of probate position be elected or appointed? Why?

On balance, I support the people’s right to elect our Waldo County judge of probate. I trust the people in our communities to judge who they want to serve as their judge of probate. I also deeply value having the opportunity and responsibility to meet with people, learn what is on their minds and help them understand the role a probate court can play in the lives of the families in our communities.

What would you do to make the Probate Court run more efficiently?

From the list above, I already have helped our Probate Court run more efficiently with my implementation of Waldo County Probate Court’s Mediation Program that I brought to the table. These mediation opportunities are helping families help themselves solve the problems that bring them into probate court and do so quickly and economically. Whereas a litigated case can cost a family thousands of dollars — and too often divides a family for months or years thereafter — mediation might save a family hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, while helping to unite rather than divide a family. I also already have helped our Probate Court run more efficiently with my development of our case management system, a system that now insures that we who work in Waldo County’s Probate Court know exactly the up-to-date status of every single case.

What would you do to better educate the public about what the role of the probate court is in the county?

To educate the public, I take every opportunity possible to help citizens understand probate issues of wills, guardianship and conservatorship, adoptions and name changes. I attend town meetings and town gatherings. I organize and host present “Probate Basics” sessions and now bicycle door-to-door around the county. Always, I also issue standing invitations to students and citizens to visit Waldo County Probate Court at 39 Spring St., Belfast for mock trials, job shadowing and/or court tours.

In addition, I also gain by hearing what issues are on the family members’ minds.

What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of being judge of probate?

For me, I am most challenged by the young parent with substance abuse issues who is having trouble prioritizing her or his child’s need for safety and stability and healthy routine. I do everything I can think of to help these parents get parenting help and substance abuse help and GEDs and family planning information. As a closing-up note, I see some of these challenging cases become our most rewarding ones as parents find roads to recovery. At these times, I celebrate for all – the child, the parent, the family, our court and our entire Waldo community now gifted with a stabilized family in our shared Waldo County family community.

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