The Aroostook County Courthouse in Houlton, Maine. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — A spike in the number of cases requiring court-appointed lawyers and a shortage of counsel in Aroostook are sending the courts outside The County to find defense representation for people who cannot afford their own.

Aroostook, with its wide geography and small population of licensed lawyers, has traditionally had issues covering criminal caseloads. The pandemic exacerbated the problem by causing courthouses to be closed for long periods of time with a subsequent lack of jury trials that has created a large backlog of cases. In addition, local lawyers have either been unable to take new cases or have taken themselves off the list of counsel who will handle hardship cases altogether.

“Aroostook is really feeling the pinch,” Maine Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Mullen said. “I was told by a defense attorney that [the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services] had sent out a kind of all-hands-on-deck request [statewide] if they had a case in Aroostook County where they had no one to appoint and would everybody consider taking one or more.”

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services currently lists 21 lawyers who take indigent cases in The County, with four listed as based outside of Aroostook.

Houlton lawyer Jeffery Pickering, who deals primarily with indigent criminal cases, said that while heavy workloads for court-appointed lawyers are nothing new, the large accumulation of delayed jury trials during the pandemic has made it impossible to handle all of the cases.

“We only do half a dozen maximum trials in a month, and they arrest like a hundred people a week,” Pickering said. “If you don’t settle them, they pile up quite badly.”

The number of pending felony cases has increased 32 percent over the past year in Aroostook County, while the pending misdemeanor cases are up 11 percent, Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said.

“They reflect an increase at the rate in which cases are being filed, but they also reflect cases that have not been resolved as a result of the delays associated with the pandemic,” Andrus said.

Andrus acknowledged that the high case counts required lawyers from outside Aroostook to step in, but also said that the courts had successfully staffed every criminal case.

“I would agree that there are cases that because of caseloads or because of conflict, we need to seek counsel from outside Aroostook County on occasion,” Andrus said. “There have been attorneys who have indicated they were electing to not take cases as part of a decision to change what they were doing. And in addition there certainly are people who are indicating that their workload has become high.”

Pay is another issue that could be affecting the number of lawyers who are willing to take the hardship cases. While the state included an increase of pay for public attorneys in its 2021 budget from $60 to $100 an hour, the hourly rates have been mostly stagnant for decades, unable to keep up with inflation. Most other types of legal cases in Maine average pay of more than $200 an hour, according to legal software website Clio.

“[The pay] has gone up, but the problem is it was so long getting there,” Pickering said. “It was $50 for 22 years or something. So it would take quite a bit of raising to catch up to inflation. “